Establishing cordgrass plants cluster their shoots to avoid ecosystem engineering

Clea N. van de Ven*, Valerie C. Reijers, Carlijn Lammers, Jim van Belzen, Yeyeong Chung, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Tjisse van Der Heide

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Vegetated coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, dunes and seagrass meadows occur at the land–sea interface—a dynamic environment typified by harsh growing conditions. These ecosystems are known as biogeomorphic landscapes because their functioning depends on biophysical interactions by which organisms engineer landforms to their own benefit. The strength of such biogeomorphic feedbacks depends on plant traits, such as stem flexibility and shoot density. Recent work demonstrated that dune grasses with similar morphological traits can build contrasting landscapes due to differences in their spatial shoot organization. However, in contrast to dune grasses that trap and stabilize sand particles in aeolian landscapes, flow attenuation in aquatic environments can generate scouring around plant stems and cause uprooting, leading to establishment thresholds for young plants. Yet, it remains unknown how findings from aeolian landscapes translate to aquatic systems and how young clonally expanding plants in hydrodynamically exposed conditions overcome these establishment thresholds by optimizing shoot placement. Here, we measured shoot patterns of 90 establishing cordgrass patches Spartina anglica at 18 European field sites that cover a broad range of hydrodynamic conditions. Next, we carried out a field experiment to investigate how observed spatial shoot patterns affect plant–sediment feedbacks. Surprisingly, field survey analyses reveal highly consistent clustered shoot patterns, regardless of environmental conditions. Experimental results demonstrate that this clustered pattern minimizes scouring compared to densely clumped organizations typically observed in established patches. Synthesis. In contrast to earlier findings highlighting that establishing dune grasses optimize their landscape engineering capacity via a flexible shoot placement strategy, we find that cordgrass instead follows a fixed strategy that minimizes engineering effects in its early life stages. We suggest that marsh grasses avoid physical stress and associated establishment thresholds in their early life stage, and switch to an ecosystem engineering strategy once established. These findings shed new light on how plant traits interact with their environment to shape the landscape and pave the way for improved restoration designs by mimicking the natural shoot organization of establishing vegetation. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1339-1349
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number5
Early online dateMar 2023
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • biogeomorphic feedbacks
  • clonal expansion strategy
  • ecosystem engineering
  • establishment thresholds
  • plant development and life-history traits
  • salt marshes
  • shoot organization
  • vegetated coastal ecosystems.


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