Cushion plants are in the news. A study published in the journal, Ecology Letters, has demonstrated that cushion plants can help increase species richness (the number of unique species in an ecological community) by modifying their micro-environment, which in turn allows certain species to exist in the community that would otherwise be unable to survive the harsh conditions. Other studies have had similar conclusions, but what is unique about this study is how extensive it was, involving 77 alpine plant communities on 5 continents.
The term “cushion plant” refers to a specific growth form. It describes a plant that grows low to the ground, has numerous small leaves and a closed, tightly-packed canopy with dense non-photosynthetic living and dead plant tissues below the canopy. Above ground it appears as a lush, thick, spreading, green mat; below ground it has a long taproot and an extensive root system. There are around 338 species of cushion plants, spanning 78 genera and 34 plant families, which can be found around the world mainly in alpine (high-altitude, tree-less) environments. Around half of the cushion plant species are native to the Andes in South America.
So, how are cushion plants able to increase species richness in their communities? There are a few unique characteristics of cushion plants that lead to this result:
– The tightly-packed, low to the ground growth form of cushion plants helps to modify the temperature of the underlying soil, working as a living mulch to keep the ground warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Plants that otherwise could not abide in extremely cold soil conditions, can thrive inside of a cushion plant due to this modification.
– The shading and covering of the ground also helps to maintain a higher level of soil moisture below cushion plants, resulting in more available water throughout the growing season, which is especially important during warm months of the year when water becomes scarce elsewhere.
– Cushion plants may also increase nutrient availability in the surrounding soil. This could be due to their long taproots and extensive root systems allowing them to “mine” the soil and pull up nutrients (and water) that would otherwise be unavailable to shallow-rooted plants. It could also be due to the high degree of dead plant material found within cushion plants that leads to an increase in the amount of organic material in the soil below. The warm, moist conditions of a cushion plant’s underbelly could speed up the rate of decomposition and nutrient cycling, making essential nutrients available to plants growing within them.
Because of these features, cushion plants act as “nurse plants” to species that grow within their mats, providing them with more accommodating soil temperatures, greater access to water, and a higher level of nutrients compared to the surrounding open ground. Some of these plant species would have little or no chance of survival in the harsh environment outside of the cushion plant. Cushion plants are also considered foundation species or keystone species because they play such a strong role in structuring their ecological community, affecting the diversity of species found in the landscape and the abundances of those species.
A common and popular cushion plant: Silene acaulis. Common name: moss campion. Plant family: Caryophyllaceae. Occurs in high mountains of North America and Eurasia. Photo credit: wikimedia commons.
An example of a cushion plant with another plant species growing within it. Photo credit: wikimedia commons.