Environmental heterogeneity affects distributions of plant species, although the effects of fine-scale heterogeneity on plant demographies are not widely studied. Diminutive winter annuals, especially rare taxa, can be sensitive to spatial variation in microenvironment as a consequence of their small stature above and belowground. To address whether spatial environmental heterogeneity affects demography, germination and fitness of Chorizanthe orcuttiana, an endangered winter annual distributed in distinct easterly and westerly microhabitats within an exceedingly narrow niche in California, we performed multiyear observational and empirical studies. We manipulated after-ripening environment, soil moisture and ambient light at both aspects, and profiled microclimate, soil physicochemistry and soil microbiomes at all sites. We show that easterly aspects host larger plants in larger populations, and have lower air temperatures combined with higher soil moisture in comparison to the west-facing sites. Yet, soil physicochemistry and microbiomes were similar across all sites. Manipulations of after-ripening conditions showed that seeds exposed to low humidity (17%) during dormancy and sown at easterly aspects exhibited the highest germination percentages, whereas seeds incubated in situ and subsequently sown at westerly aspects yielded the lowest germination. Simultaneous manipulations of soil moisture and light showed that at both aspects higher moisture combined with shade led to higher germination, whereas ambient soil moisture combined with shade yielded the lowest germination. Altogether, our studies show that the diminutive, rare winter annual C. orcuttiana exhibits higher germination and plant fitness under cooler soil conditions with higher soil moisture while preferring drier environments during after-ripening.
- soil moisture