Native plants for greening Mediterranean agroecosystems

Abstract

In the upcoming United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global challenge for scientists and practitioners will be to develop a well-functioning seed production sector on the basis of a sound species-selection process1. To balance crop production with biodiversity functions in Mediterranean woody crops, agroecological practices2 suggest the need to move towards the establishment of herbaceous ground covers3,4,5. However, establishing such plants requires a supply of suitable native seeds, which is currently unavailable. Here, we present a comprehensive process for selecting regionally adapted species that also emphasizes considerations for seed production6. Using olive groves as a target system, we found that research on ground covers for regenerative agriculture has largely overlooked native species at the expense of commercial and ill-suited varieties. Our assessment of native annuals showed that 85% of the grasses and forbs evaluated exhibit a suite of ecological and production traits that can be tailored to meet the requirements of farmers, seed producers and environmental agencies. These findings suggest that many native species are neglected in agronomic research, despite being potentially suitable for ground covers and for supporting a nature-based solution7 in restoration practice. The framework used here may be applied in other agroecosystems to follow global greening initiatives and to support native seed production to scale up restoration8,9,10.

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Fig. 1: A comprehensive process for native plant prioritization in agroecosystem restoration.
Fig. 2: An overview of agroecological research conducted on ground covers in Mediterranean olive groves during the period 1985–2015.
Fig. 3: Phenological development of selected grasses and forbs in agronomic fields for seed farming.

Data availability

The data for species pools, production traits (numerical) and species assessments and a copy of the DEXi evaluation file are archived at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3460431.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Hernández González for his support on the review of ground cover species and on lab and field work. This research was funded by the PEOPLE/Marie Curie Actions of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013 under REA grant agreement number 607785 through the ITN project NASSTEC (www.nasstec.eu). B.J.-A. was further supported by the Marie Curie Clarín-COFUND programme of the Principality of Asturias and the European Union (ACB17-26) and the Asturias regional grant number FC-GRUPIN-IDI/2018/000151.

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B.J.-A. and C.G.-R. designed the conceptual framework, focusing on the scientific and agronomic aspects of the study, respectively. S.F. compiled the species data, conducted the agronomic experiments and created the utility functions. J.S. synthesized all experimental data and calculated the suitability indexes for all species. B.J.-A. wrote the manuscript with the support of S.F. and J.S.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Borja Jiménez-Alfaro.

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Competing interests

C.G.-R. is the head of a private company producing native seeds for ecological restoration.

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Peer review information Nature Plants thanks Michael Perring and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2, and Tables 1 and 2.

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Jiménez-Alfaro, B., Frischie, S., Stolz, J. et al. Native plants for greening Mediterranean agroecosystems. Nat. Plants 6, 209–214 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-020-0617-3

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