Local adaptation to continuous mowing makes the noxious weed Solanum elaeagnifolium a superweed candidate by improving fitness and defense traits.
The role of disturbance in accelerating weed growth is well understood. While most studies have focused on soil mediated disturbance, mowing can also impact weed traits. Using silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium), a noxious and invasive weed, through a series of field, laboratory, and greenhouse experiments, we asked whether continuous mowing influences growth and plant defense traits, expressed via different avenues, and whether they cascade into offspring. We found that mowed plants produced significantly less number of fruits, and less number of total seeds per plant, but had higher seed mass, and germinated more and faster. When three herbivores were allowed to feed, tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) caterpillars, gained more mass on seedlings from unmowed plants, while cow pea aphid (Aphis craccivora), a generalist, established better on mowed seedlings; however, leaf trichome density was higher on unmowed seedlings, suggesting possible negative cross talk in defense traits. Texas potato beetle (Leptinotarsa texana), a co-evolved specialist on S. elaeagnifolium, did not show any differential feeding effects. We also found that specific root length, an indicator of nutrient acquisition, was significantly higher in first generation seedlings from mowed plants. Taken together, we show that mowing is a selective pressure that enhances some fitness and defense traits and can contribute to producing superweeds.