Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems

Phytomass and phenology of three alpine snowpatch species across a natural snowmelt gradient

Susanna E. Venn A and John W. Morgan A B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology, Department of Botany, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic. 3086, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email:

Australian Journal of Botany 55(4) 450-456
Submitted: 6 January 2006  Accepted: 8 January 2007   Published: 20 June 2007


Alpine snowpatch vegetation in Australia is restricted to high mountain areas and occurs in locations where winter snow persists longest into the summer. The timing of annual snowmelt is considered an important determinant of vegetation patterns in alpine areas because it affects the length of the growing season for plant species at landscape scales. There are few studies in Australia that have examined the effects of the date of snowmelt on the performance of plant species at small spatial scales. The phytomass and phenology of three common snowpatch species (Celmisia pugioniformis, Luzula acutifolia, Poa fawcettiae) was examined during one growing season across a natural snowmelt gradient to examine their response to time of snow release. Peak phytomass was significantly higher in early than late-melting zones for L. acutifolia and marginally higher there for C. pugioniformis. P. fawcettiae, however, produced higher mean peak phytomass in late-melting zones where soil was initially wetter in the growing season. Flower buds of L. acutifolia were evident as the snow melted, and flowering occurred at the same time in all areas of the snowpatch. The number of days from the date of snowmelt to the date of the first observed flower bud in C. pugioniformis and P. fawcettiae was 22–25 days shorter in late-melting areas than in early melting areas. For both of these species, flowering and subsequent seed set occurred simultaneously across the snowpatch regardless of the date of the initial snowmelt, suggesting that photoperiod controls flowering in these species. Our study suggests that the predicted declines in snow cover in Australia in coming decades may affect the phytomass of species that are currently constrained by late-lying snow. This, in turn, may affect their long-term patterns of distribution. If plants respond to photoperiod for flowering, as seems to be important here for C. pugioniformis and P. fawcettiae, it is unlikely that the periods following earlier than usual snowmelt will be fully utilised by these species. Any attempts at predicting or modelling future alpine plant distribution on the basis of warming scenarios may therefore need to account for photoperiod constraints on flowering as well changes in phytomass production.


Lynise Wearne, Marty Gent and Paul McMorran assisted with field work, often under trying conditions. Daryl Burns (Parks Victoria) provided constant encouragement, Paul Martin helped produce Fig. 2 and Max Bartley provided technical assistance. The Ski Club of East Gippsland kindly provided accommodation at Johnston’s Hut and the Department of Sustainability and Environment provided the research permits necessary to work in the area. We gratefully thank Bob Parsons, Alan Mark and two anonymous referees who substantially improved this manuscript and clarified our ecological thoughts.


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