It has been proposed that in the harsh arctic and alpine climate zones, small microtopographic variations that can generate more benign conditions than in the surrounding environment could be perceived as safe sites for seedling recruitment. Cushion plants can modify wind pattern, temperature and water availability. Such modifications imply that cushion plants could act as ‘nurse plants’ facilitating the recruitment of other species in the community. This effect should be more evident under stressful conditions. We tested these hypotheses comparing the number of species that grow inside and outside Bolax gummifera cushions at two elevations (700 and 900 m a.s.l.) in the Patagonian Andes of Chile (50 °S). At both elevations, and in equivalent areas, the number of species was registered within and outside cushions. A total of 36 and 27 plant species were recorded either within or outside B. gummifera cushions at 700 and 900 m a.s.l., respectively. At 700 m a.s.l., 33 species were recorded growing within cushions and 29 outside them, while at 900 m a.s.l. these numbers were 24 and 13 respectively. At both elevations there were significantly more species growing within than outside cushions, and the proportion of species growing within cushions increased with elevation. Thus there is a nurse effect of cushion plants and it is more evident at higher elevations. Shelter from wind and increased soil water availability seem to be the factors that increase plant recruitment within cushions.
Nomenclature: Marticorena & Quezada (1985).