Nutrient Limitation of Native and Invasive N2-Fixing Plants in Northwest Prairies

Nutrient rich conditions often promote plant invasions, yet additions of non-nitrogen (N) nutrients may provide a novel approach for conserving native symbiotic N-fixing plants in otherwise N-limited ecosystems. Lupinus oreganus is a threatened N-fixing plant endemic to prairies in western Oregon and southwest Washington (USA). We tested the effect of non-N fertilizers on the growth, reproduction, tissue N content, and stable isotope δ15N composition of Lupinus at three sites that differed in soil phosphorus (P) and N availability. We also examined changes in other Fabaceae (primarily Vicia sativa and V. hirsuta) and cover of all plant species. Variation in background soil P and N availability shaped patterns of nutrient limitation across sites. Where soil P and N were low, P additions increased Lupinus tissue N and altered foliar δ15N, suggesting P limitation of N fixation. Where soil P was low but N was high, P addition stimulated growth and reproduction in Lupinus. At a third site, with higher soil P, only micro- and macronutrient fertilization without N and P increased Lupinus growth and tissue N. Lupinus foliar δ15N averaged −0.010‰ across all treatments and varied little with tissue N, suggesting consistent use of fixed N. In contrast, foliar δ15N of Vicia spp. shifted towards 0‰ as tissue N increased, suggesting that conditions fostering N fixation may benefit these exotic species. Fertilization increased cover, N fixation, and tissue N of non-target, exotic Fabaceae, but overall plant community structure shifted at only one site, and only after the dominant Lupinus was excluded from analyses. Our finding that non-N fertilization increased the performance of Lupinus with few community effects suggests a potential strategy to aid populations of threatened legume species. The increase in exotic Fabaceae species that occurred with fertilization further suggests that monitoring and adaptive management should accompany any large scale applications.