Legume nutrition is improved by neighbouring grasses.
Background: Combinations of grasses and nitrogen-fixing legumes are ubiquitous in most natural and derived pastoral grasslands. This was not formerly the case in New Zealand's unique indigenous grasslands that are now frequently impacted by exotic pasture grasses and legumes. Understanding the co-existence of native and exotic plants is the broad focus of this research. Aims: Spillover of nitrogen (N) from clovers to grasses in diverse pasture is well known. We question whether grasses provide reciprocal nutritional benefits to legumes. Does the mutual exploitation of soil biogeochemistry by legumes and grasses help to explain their coexistence and, if so, does this have implications for biodiversity in NZ's novel native grassland communities? Methods: Combinations of grasses and legumes, including a native tussock grass, were grown in a nutrient-poor (low P, S, Ca, Mg, Mn, and B) high country soil in a pot experiment, quantifying the foliar acquisition of nutrients from soil. Field data were obtained by sampling foliage of clover in single- and mixed-species patches in a more fertile lowland pasture. Results: Benefits of legume and grass growing together were reflected in enhanced productivity and higher uptake of a range of key nutrients. This was most evident but not restricted to a combination of two exotic species: cocksfoot and white clover. In the nutrient-poor soil, legumes grew better in combination with different species of introduced grasses. Uptake of key elements from soil to plants significantly differed with combinations of legumes and grasses compared to individual species. Elevated concentrations of P, K and S were recorded in clover when growing with grasses, although Ca uptake was lower. Expected reciprocal reduction of clover N or enhanced grass N were not recorded. Mass balance data (total extraction of key nutrients from the soil pool) showed that combination of grasses and legumes exploit soil nutrients (particularly P, Zn, Mn and Mo) more effectively than single species alone. In grasses, only tissue concentrations of K, S and Zn significantly increased when growing with legumes, but native tussock grass procured less nutrients when growing with the exotic legumes. Field sampling of clover from the more fertile lowland soil showed significantly higher foliar concentrations of K, Mn, Cu and B, but less Ca. Conclusions: The findings are indicative of a mutualistic relationship: legumes derive nutritional benefits from growing with grasses. Native tussock grass contained less N when growing with the exotic legumes, suggesting less compatibility and a lack of adaptation to coexistence.