Understory plant diversity and biomass in hybrid poplar riparian buffer strips in pastures.
Understory plant biomass, species richness and canopy openness were measured in six-year old hybrid poplar riparian buffer strips, in the understory of two unrelated clones (MxB-915311 and DxN-3570), planted along headwater streams at three pasture sites of southern Quebec. Canopy openness was an important factor affecting understory biomass in hybrid poplar buffers, with lower understory biomass observed on sites and under the clone with lower canopy openness. Although tree size was an important factor affecting canopy openness, relationships between total stem volume and canopy openness, for each clone, also support the hypothesis of a clonal effect on canopy openness. Understory biomass and canopy openness as low as 3.6 g m-2 and 7.6% in 1 m2 microplots were measured under clone MxB-915311 at the most productive site. This reduction of understory plant growth could compromise important buffer functions for water quality protection (runoff control, sediment trapping and surface soil stabilisation), particularly were concentrated runoff flow paths enter the buffer. On the other hand, tree buffers that maintain relatively low canopy openness could be interesting to promote native and wetland plant diversity. Significant positive relationships between canopy openness and introduced species richness (R2=0.46, p<0.001) and cover (R2=0.51, p<0.001) were obtained, while no significant relationship was observed between canopy openness and native (wetland) species richness and cover. These results suggest that planting riparian buffer strips of fast-growing trees can rapidly lead to the exclusion of shade-intolerant introduced species, typical colonisers of disturbed habitats such as riparian areas of pastures, while having no significant effect on native (wetland) diversity. Forest canopy created by the poplars was probably an important physical barrier controlling introduced plant richness and abundance in agricultural riparian corridors. A strong linear relationship (R2=0.73) between mean total species richness and mean introduced species richness was also observed, supporting the hypothesis that the richest communities are the most invaded by introduced species, possibly because of higher canopy openness, as seen at the least productive site (low poplar growth). Finally, results of this study highlight the need for a better understanding of relationships between tree growth, canopy openness, understory biomass and plant diversity in narrow strips of planted trees. This would be useful in designing multifunctional riparian buffer systems in agricultural landscapes.