Low litter cover, high light availability and rock cover favour the establishment of Ailanthus altissima in forests in southern Switzerland.
Future forest composition is uncertain in many areas due to climate change. The spread of non-native species adds to these uncertainties, particularly in forests recently colonised by novel tree species. To anticipate future forest composition, and thus the provision of ecosystem services, a thorough understanding of the factors influencing the establishment of non-native tree species is essential. We studied the presence and abundance of regeneration of Ailanthus altissima (Mill.) Swingle in 89 plots on a regular grid in three sites in southern Switzerland to determine the main drivers of its establishment. All sites are located in abandoned, i.e. currently unmanaged stands of Castanea sativa Mill. Propagule pressure is caused by single mature A. altissima that colonised the area ca 40 years ago. We found high rock cover, low litter cover and high light availability to be the most important predictors for the presence of A. altissima regeneration, whereas its abundance was positively influenced by high light availability, low litter cover and high browsing on regeneration of competing species. However, the presence models performed much better than the abundance models. Interestingly, the most important factors favouring the establishment of A. altissima in recently undisturbed sites were found to be similar in a nearby site after a severe forest fire, which suggests a similar establishment strategy after a disturbance as in recently undisturbed forests. Based on our results we expect a further expansion of the species in lowland forests currently dominated by C. sativa, likely controlled primarily by light availability.