Restoring forest structure and composition is an important component of urban land management, but we lack clear understanding of the mechanisms driving restoration success. Here we studied two indicators of restoration success in temperate rainforests: native tree regeneration and epiphyte colonization. We hypothesized that ecosystem properties such as forest canopy openness, abundance of exotic herbaceous weeds, and the microclimate directly affect the density and diversity of native tree seedlings and epiphytes. Relationships between environmental conditions and the plant community were investigated in 27 restored urban forests spanning 3-70 years in age and in unrestored and remnant urban forests. We used structural equation modelling to determine the direct and indirect drivers of native tree regeneration and epiphyte colonization in the restored forests. Compared to remnant forest, unrestored forest had fewer native canopy tree species, significantly more light reaching the forest floor annually, and higher exotic weed cover. Additionally, epiphyte density was lower and native tree regeneration density was marginally lower in the unrestored forests. In restored forests, light availability was reduced to levels found in remnant forests within 20 years of restoration planting, followed shortly thereafter by declines in herbaceous exotic weeds and reduced fluctuation of relative humidity and soil temperatures. Contrary to expectations, canopy openness was only an indirect driver of tree regeneration and epiphyte colonization, but it directly regulated weed cover and microclimatic fluctuations, both of which directly drove the density and richness of regeneration and epiphyte colonization. Epiphyte density and diversity were also positively related to forest basal area, as large trees provide physical habitat for colonization. These results imply that ecosystem properties change predictably after initial restoration plantings, and that reaching critical thresholds in some ecosystem properties makes conditions suitable for the regeneration of late successional species, which is vital for restoration success and long-term ecosystem sustainability. Abiotic and biotic conditions that promote tree regeneration and epiphyte colonization will likely be present in forests with a basal area ≥27 m2 /ha. We recommend that urban forest restoration plantings be designed to promote rapid canopy closure to reduce light availability, suppress herbaceous weeds, and stabilize the microclimate.
Keywords: epiphytes; indicators; introduced species; microclimate; nonnative species; restoration targets; structural equation modeling; temperate rainforest; tree regeneration; urban ecology.
© 2017 by the Ecological Society of America.