Seedling establishment of Themeda triandra Forssk. in the montane grasslands of Natal.
Soil erosion and vegetation destruction have reached serious proportions in disturbed areas of the montane grasslands of the Natal Drakensberg. Little is known of the inherent ability of indigenous grasses to produce viable seed and establish seedlings for rehabilitation programmes. This study examined the effects of fire and small-scale disturbance on the seedling dynamics of the dominant grass, Themeda triandra Forssk. Annual seed production of T. triandra increased with length of burning rotation, ranging from 21 seeds m⁻² in the annual winter burn to 485 seeds m⁻² in the five-year burn. High predation of seeds (70-98%) and low viability (37% in 15 month-old seeds) contributed to the poor representation of T. triandra in the seed bank when compared to the aboveground vegetation. Seedling densities and survival were monitored by mapping quadrats at six-weekly intervals from November 1986 to September 1989. Highest establishment of T. triandra was recorded in the biennial spring burn treatment (< 184 seedlings m⁻²). Microclimatic studies of the seedling environment demonstrated that increases in photosynthetically active radiation following burning, and high soil moisture associated with accumulation of litter, favour seedling establishment. The main constraint to seedling establishment was high mortality in winter which resulted in a 1% survival of seedlings of T. triandra during the three-year study. This indicates that in the fire-climax grasslands of the study, seedlings contribute little to the population structure. The most significant factor contributing to low survivorship is intraspecific competition between seedlings. Spacing of seedlings in rehabilitation programmes is therefore a critical factor in optimizing seedling establishment. Analysis of the fate of seeds of T. triandra between their production and establishment, showed that the main constraints for seedling establishment were predation, low viability and poor germination. A population model, based on transitions between seeds, seedlings and mature tufts, predicts that a biennial spring burn is the optimal treatment for maximising both seedling establishment and vegetative growth.