One measure of forest soil quality is the ability of the soil to support tree growth. In mediterranean-type ecosystems, such as most of California's forests, there is virtually no rainfall during the summer growing season, so trees must rely on water stored within the substrate. Water is the primary limitation to productivity in these forests. Many forest soils in California are relatively thin, but are underlain by thick zones of weathered bedrock. Weathered granitic bedrock, the most prevalent lithology, has available water capacities (0.12-cm water/cm rock) that approach those of soils (0.2-cm water/cm soil) and, because the weathered rock zone is usually so much thicker (several meters) than the soil (<1 m), it almost always constitutes the larger storage reservoir for plant-available water. The weathered bedrock retains the original rock fabric and is friable and easily excavated, but the primary minerals are not thoroughly altered to clay minerals, so it is not considered saprolite. Roots of ponderosa pine ( Pinus ponderosa ) seedlings penetrate through the soil and encounter weathered bedrock within the first 2 years on many sites. Thus, the influence of the weathered bedrock zone on plant growth begins early. Root access to the weathered bedrock is restricted to fractures, which are often spaced about 50 cm apart. Water is extracted from the intervening rock matrix through unsaturated flow toward the root mat in the fractures and by mycorrhizal fungal hyphae that penetrate the rock matrix. At one site in the Sierra Nevada, 30-year-old Jeffrey pine ( P. jeffreyi ) depleted the soil-held water by mid-June and relied on water stored in the weathered bedrock until the rainy season began in October. In this case, the weathered bedrock supplied at least 70% of the water used by the trees during the growing season. In the same area, we found that thin soils are not a detriment to pine productivity when they are underlain by a thick zone of weathered bedrock. In mediterranean-type ecosystems, the weathered bedrock zone is an essential component of the plant water supply system and is thus an important contributor to forest soil quality.
Geoderma – Elsevier
Published: Jun 1, 2003
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