Comparative water relations of Protea nitida seedlings and sprouters after fire.
Smith, Rosemary Elizabeth.
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This study was undertaken to determine the effect of vegetation structure (the ratio of re-seeding to re-sprouting plants) on post-fire catchment water yield. Plant communities are the only components of mountain catchments which can be manipulated to augment water supplies on any practical scale. Burning, which is one of the options available to catchment managers, reduces plant biomass and increases water yield by reducing transpiration and interception losses. Communities dominated by re-seeding species tend to recover more slowly after fires than when sprouters predominate. The rate of vegetation recovery will determine the rate at which streamflow returns to pre-fire levels. Sprouters may use more water than seeders in the early post-fire period by virtue of their greater leaf area, which both increases interception and transpiration losses. Leaf area development could be used as a simple determinant of post-fire water yield if transpiration losses per unit leaf area are similar in seedlings and sprouters. In this study, a comparison was made of the transpiration rates of seedlings and sprouters of Protea nitida after a fire in Swartboskloof (Cape Province) in 1987. Plant water potentials were determined (index of the degree of stress) and leaf stomatal conductances were measured. Results indicate that transpiration rates are similar throughout the year except during the short summer drought period when the seedlings have comparatively low transpiration rates (< 1 mmo1 m-2 s-1 compared to 2-3 mmo1 m-2 s-1 of the sprouter), and i immediately after the first winter rains where the seedlings have comparatively high rates (approxi.mately 4 mmol m-2 s-1 compared to 2 mmol m-2s-1.) The 1ow summer rates are thought to be the result of drought stress induced by limited water supply and the shallow root systems of the seedlings. The higher winter rates suggest that the shallow surface roots of the seedlings respond quickly to increased surface moisture. Differences in root structure (Le. shallow seedling roots and well-developed deep sprouter roots) rather than regeneration mode appear to be responsible for the marginal differences observed in transpiration rates. These differences are expected to disappear as seedling roots develop and occupy the profile. Leaf area could therefore, be used as a determinant of catchment water yield.