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Floods, fire, and ice: disturbance ecology of riparian cottonwoods

Author(s): Stewart B. Rood, Lori A. Goater, John M. Mahoney, Cheryl M. Pearce, Derald G. Smith
Year Published: 2007

Cottonwoods are poplar trees that are well adapted to dynamic riparian, or streamside, zones throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Here we assess the influences of three prominent physical disturbances, floods, fire, and ice, on cottonwood population ecology. We emphasize cottonwoods along rivers from the 'Crown of the Continent', the central Rocky Mountain zone around the Canada-United States border, where five Populus species overlap and four hybridize. Moderate to major floods scour banks and deposit bars, creating barren and moist colonization sites that are essential for cottonwood seedling recruitment. Floods also scarify shallow roots, thus promoting clonal suckering, especially for the section Tacamahaca species: narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia James), balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera L.), and black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa Torr. & A. Gray). Fire would naturally be less frequent in some riparian zones because of the moist conditions and firebreaks provided by the streams, but with human use, floodplain forest fires have probably increased. Following fire, regrowth through clonal root and shoot suckers can be prolific for the Tacamahaca species, but is limited for the section Aigeiros, prairie cottonwood (Populus deltoides Bartr.). River ice, and especially ice drives that accompany winter or spring break-up, provide powerful riparian disturbances that have often been neglected. Ice drives generate barren sites for seedling colonization, shear shoots, and scarify roots promoting shoot and root suckering, and sever branches, enabling dispersive clonal branch propagation. Following studies along many regional rivers, we conclude that: (i) riparian cottonwoods are tolerant of, and dependent upon, occasional physical disturbance for population rejuvenation; (ii) differing disturbance responses contribute to niche differentiation across the Populus species; (iii) different disturbances enable varied spatial and temporal patterns of cottonwood establishment, including fringe, general, and patch recruitment; and (iv) natural disturbance regimes probably favor native cottonwoods and disfavor some invasive, woody plants. River damming and flow regulation often attempt to attenuate flood and ice disturbance, a management objective that may hinder the perpetuation of native floodplain forests. We recommend that river resource managers seek to allow flood and ice disturbance, and additionally, fire may provide a managed disturbance that could rejuvenate overmature cottonwood groves along some regulated rivers.

Citation: Rood, Stewart. B.; Goater, Lori A.; Mahoney, John M.; Pearce, Cheryl M.; Smith, Derald G. 2007. Floods, fire, and ice: disturbance ecology of riparian cottonwoods. Canadian Journal of Botany. 85(11): 1019-1032.
Topic(s): Management Approaches, Recovery after fire
Ecosystem(s): Riparian woodland/shrubland
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article, Synthesis
NRFSN number: 8237
FRAMES RCS number: 9587
Record updated: Mar 31, 2015