Lignin signatures show the effects of changes in heather and bracken cover on the composition of organic matter in a moorland soil profile

Research paper by S. L. Hetherington, J. M. Anderson

Indexed on: 01 Nov '98Published on: 01 Nov '98Published in: Oecologia


Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is aggressively displacing heather (Calluna vulgaris) on many moorlands in Britain. We investigated the use of lignin derivatives to identify the distribution of soil organic matter (SOM) derived from bracken in moorland soil profiles formed under heather. Phenylpropanoids extracted from recently senesced litters, roots and SOM, using alkaline CuO oxidation, showed distinct signatures for bracken and heather, with vanillyl moieties dominating bracken litter extracts and vanillyl and syringyl dominating heather litter extracts. Ratios of vanillyl and syringyl concentrations characterised the SOM derived from heather and bracken better than the concentrations of the individual moieties. The analysis showed up to a depth of 5 cm under pure bracken cover, and at the interface between heather and bracken, the SOM was largely derived from bracken litter but below that depth SOM was apparently derived from heather. The use of these methods to identify the plant origin of SOM not only enables understanding the effects of changing vegetation cover on organic matter dynamics in moorland soils but could also facilitate management techniques in moorland/heathland restoration which involve the removal of comparatively nutrient-rich SOM derived from bracken.