The cork oak in the mountains of Palermo (Italy): ecological insights from the south-eastern edge of its distribution range.
The uneven presence of the cork oak (Quercus suber L.) within its distribution range is not only determined by its climatic requirements but also by specific edaphic needs. Although most of the natural populations thrive in acidic soils deriving from metamorphic or volcanic rock outcrops, some cork oak populations are found growing in soils deriving from calcareous bedrock, which are considered less suitable. We carried out a multidisciplinary investigation at the south eastern edge of the Q. suber distribution range (Mountains of Palermo, NW Sicily), including soil, floristic, and vegetation surveys, aimed at: (i) assessing the native or introduced origin of some peculiar cork oak populations; (ii) describing the associated plant communities and soils; (iii) identifying the ecological factors which could explain the local adaptation to soils deriving from calcareous bedrock; (iv) discussing the ecological role played by this species in the study area and within its distribution range. The collected information suggest that the detected cork oak stands are native to these areas. We hypothesized that the co-occurrence of high fire frequency, high soil calcium content and erosion, which caused the intermixing of different parent materials, might favor its competitive interactions with other Mediterranean tree species, thus accounting for the local presence of Q. suber. The study of cork oak populations thriving in peculiar substrates at the driest end of the range could be of great importance for the future conservation of this species, which is expected to face growing threats in the coming decades.