The relationship between plant density and survival to water stress in seedlings of a legume tree

ABSTRACT Competition for soil water is one of the major processes that drive the assembly of plant communities, particularly in regions subjected to long dry seasons. The relationship between plant density and soil water competition has strong, but poorly understood, practical implications for population dynamics, restoration and conservation. We planted seedlings of the pioneer legume tree Senegalia polyphylla in containers and assessed the effects of plant density on their resistance to water stress. We completely eliminated the above-ground parts (stem and shoots) of randomly selected plants at 60-days post-planting in order to create three different densities of seedlings. We saturated the soil of the remaining seedlings and then deprived them of additional water until all seedlings died. We assessed the time elapsed from water suppression to wilting and death of individual plants. We found a strong negative relationship between plant density and time to wilting or death. Seedlings survived water stress 80% longer when density was reduced by two-thirds. Planting in lower densities or reducing density by thinning should be considered as strategies to enhance resistance to water stress in drought-prone regions.