Invasive plant profits from water savings by native plants under elevated CO2 and warming

By Julie Kray and Dana Blumenthal

Globally, rising atmospheric CO2, warming temperatures, increasing nitrogen deposition and shifting precipitation patterns are changing the game for plants. These and other global changes influence the availability of key plant resources, which may affect the relative success of different plant species, and transform the composition of many plant communities. What we don’t yet know is which plant communities will change the most, and what types of plants will dominate those communities in the future.

1.Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica) is one of the most common invasive plants in northern mixed-grass prairie.

Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica) is one of the most common invasive plants in northern mixed-grass prairie. Photo credit: Stephen Asmus.

There is concern that global changes, especially those that increase plant resource availability (e.g. elevated CO2 and higher nitrogen deposition), may favor invasive plant species more often than not1,2. Invasive plants often thrive in new and changing environments because of their rapid resource acquisition and fast growth rates, ability to disperse to new habitats, and broad environmental tolerances. However, even the most prolific invasive plants can fare poorly when faced with resource-poor or highly competitive environments. The challenge is to predict which ecosystems will become more susceptible to invasion as climates and landscapes change.

In semiarid environments, global change effects are particularly complicated because many of them not only influence plants directly but also alter water availability. Higher atmospheric CO2 allows plants to partially close stomatal pores on their leaves, which reduces transpirational water loss and increases plant water use efficiency, leaving more water in the soil. This could favor fast-growing invasive species with high resource requirements.  Warming, on the other hand, increases evapotranspiration and reduces soil water, which might inhibit invasive species.

Megan xx, a technician at USDA-ARS, collects plant data at the Prairie Heating and CO2 Enrichment (PHACE) experiment. In the foreground, a flowering Dalmatian toadflax plant towers over native grasses.

Megan Nix, a technician at USDA-ARS, collects plant data at the Prairie Heating and CO2 Enrichment (PHACE) experiment. In the foreground, a flowering Dalmatian toadflax plant towers over native grasses. Photo credit: Stephen Asmus.


At the Prairie Heating and COEnrichment (PHACE) experiment in Wyoming, we are working to understand how the combination of higher CO2 and warmer temperatures will influence the relative success of native and invasive plants in semiarid mixed-grass prairie. In the first of several studies, we focused on Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica), one of the most common invasive plants in northern mixed-grass prairie. Toadflax seedlings were transplanted into native prairie and exposed to 4 years of higher CO2 and temperature. Under elevated CO2, toadflax plants grew 13 times larger, produced 32 times as many seeds, and 7 times as many vegetative sprouts from belowground roots3. Toadflax far out-grew the native species it was growing with, and showed the strongest response to elevated CO2 observed yet for an invasive plant in the field. And even though warming dried the soil, its effects were much smaller than those of CO2 , such that elevated CO2 and warming together strongly increased toadflax survival, growth, and reproduction.3

Why did toadflax do so well? It seems to have profited from the direct effect of higher CO2 (carbon fertilization), and the indirect effect of increased soil water availabilitytoadflax was tapping the water saved by native grass species, including western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii). There were clear physiological differences between the two species in response to high CO2: native western wheatgrass showed only a moderate increase in photosynthesis (23%) compared with a large increase in toadflax (87%). Further, western wheatgrass partially closed leaf stomatal pores at high CO2, saving more water in the soil, while toadflax did not. In other words, the native grass grew a little more and conserved a lot more soil water under higher CO2, whereas toadflax did not conserve water, and simply used the extra soil water and CO2 to grow faster and scale up reproductive effort.

The bottom line is that toadflax is likely to benefit from the higher CO2 and warmer temperatures forecast for northern mixed-grass prairie later this century, by virtue of its rapid growth and less conservative water use relative to native grasses that currently dominate the prairie. More broadly, these results suggest that increasing CO2 may have particularly large effects on invasion in water-limited regions, posing challenges for food production and conservation of biological diversity.


For more perspective on this story, we recommend this Harvest Public Media radio broadcast by Luke Runyon with KUNC (or listen via New Phytologist’s news page). Learn more about invasive toadflaxes from Colorado State’s Ag Extension website.

You can catch up on earlier posts about the PHACE study here, here, and here.

EcoPress will highlight the latest discoveries from the PHACE experiment in future posts–check back soon!



1Dukes, J.S. and Mooney, H.A. 1999. Does global change increase the success of biological invaders? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 14, 135-139.

2Bradley, B.A., Blumenthal, D.M., Wilcove, D.S. and Ziska, L.H. 2010. Predicting plant invasions in an era of global change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25, 310-318.

3Blumenthal, D. M., V. Resco, J. A. Morgan, D. G. Williams, D. R. LeCain, E. M. Hardy, E. Pendall, and E. Bladyka. 2013. Invasive forb benefits from water savings by native plants and carbon fertilization under elevated CO2 and warming. New Phytologist 200: 1156–1165.


  1. marge

    In case you haven’t noticed, NATURE has figured it out and successfully ardapted for Millenia. All conditions have been passed through before. Who are you or i to think we can with our puny little brains devise a better planet ecosystem than the creator of all. Yes we need, in our space, not destroy deliberately, but how do you know that every plant was not an “invasive specie” at one time in its current or past location. ALL of them have found habitation somewhere on the earth , and when they move, maybe it is the creators plan, not mans’ puny “goof ups” that are the cause for the new prolifferation>

  2. marge

    maybe a better name than “invasive plant” would be “naturally adaptive plant” takes all the potential for political perversion out of the picture.

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