Timing is everything: does early and late germination favor invasions by herbaceous alien plants?
Aims: Plant invasions represent a unique opportunity to study the mechanisms underlying community assembly rules and species distribution patterns. While a superior competitive ability has often been proposed as a major driver of successful plant invasions, its significance depends crucially on the timing of any competitive interaction. We assess whether a mismatch in germination phenology can favor the establishment of alien species, allowing them to exploit vacant niches where competition is low. As well as having important effects on the survival, growth and fitness of a species, asymmetric competition and potential soil legacies resulting from early or late germination can also impact on species recruitment. However, early or late germination comes at a cost, increases the risks of exposure to unfavorable conditions and requires an enhanced abiotic resistance if it is to lead to successful establishment. Important Findings: While there are several anecdotal accounts of early and late germination for invasive species, there are limited comparative data with resident species growing under natural conditions. Available evidence from grassland communities indicates that a short-term germination advantage or priority (few days/weeks) provides invasive species with a strong competitive advantage over native species and is a critical factor in many invasions. While the exploitation of periods of low competition is a plausible mechanism for the successful establishment of many invasive plants, direct evidence for this strategy is still scarce. This is particularly true with regard to the exploitation of late germination niches. Consequently, long-term comparative monitoring of the germination phenology of invasive and native plants in situ is needed to assess its significance in a range of ecosystems and its impact on community dynamics.