PeerJ. 2023 Jul 24;11:e15538. doi: 10.7717/peerj.15538. eCollection 2023.
Drought prone, arid and semi-arid ecosystems are challenging to restore once degraded due to low levels of natural recruitment and survival of reintroduced plants. This is evident in the restoration of degraded succulent thicket habitats in the Albany Subtropical Thicket Biome located in South Africa. The current restoration practice for this ecosystem focuses predominantly on reintroducing Portulacaria afra L. Jacq., which is naturally dominant in terms of cover and biomass, but largely absent in regions degraded by domestic livestock. This has been achieved by planting unrooted cuttings with limited consideration of soil water availability in a drought-prone ecosystem. This study tests the effects of the timing of water availability after planting on the root development of P. afra cuttings. Cuttings were harvested from seven individual plants and grown in a glasshouse setting. Eighty four cuttings were taken from each individual, twelve for each of the seven watering treatments per individual plant. The treatments represented a time-staggered initial watering after planting, including: on the day of planting, 4 days, 7 days, 14 days, 21 days, and 28 days after planting. After 32 days, all treatments were watered on a bi-weekly basis for two weeks; a control treatment with no watering throughout the experiment was included. The proportion of rooted cuttings per treatment and dry root mass were determined at the end of the experimental period (day 42). The early onset of watering was associated with a higher percentage of rooting (X2(5) = 11.352, p = 0.045) and had a weak, but non-significant, impact on the final dry root mass (F5,36 = 2.109, p = 0.0631). Importantly, no clear rooting window within 28 days was detected as the majority of cuttings exhibited root development (greater than 50% of cuttings rooted for each individual parent-plant); this suggests that watering at the time of planting P. afra cuttings in-field for restoration may not be necessary. An unexpected, but important, result was that parent-plant identity had a strong interaction with the accumulation of root mass (F36,460 = 5.026, p < 0.001; LR7 = 122.99, p < 0.001). The control treatment, which had no water throughout the experiment, had no root development. These findings suggest that water availability is required for the onset of rooting in P. afra cutting. However, the duration of the experiment was insufficient to detect the point at which P. afra cuttings could no longer initiate rooting once exposed to soil moisture, and thus no rooting window could be defined. Despite harvesting material from the same source population, parent-plant identity strongly impacted root development. Further work is required to characterise the rooting window, and to explore the effect of parent-plant condition on in-field and experimental restoration results; we urge that experiments using P. afra closely track the parent-source at the individual level as this may be a factor that may have a major impact on results.