What makes a weed a weed? A large-scale evaluation of arable weeds through a functional lens

Am J Bot. 2019 Jan;106(1):90-100. doi: 10.1002/ajb2.1213. Epub 2019 Jan 11.


Premise of the study: Despite long-term research efforts, a comprehensive perspective on the ecological and functional properties determining plant weediness is still lacking. We investigated here key functional attributes of arable weeds compared to non-weed plants, at large spatial scale.

Methods: We used an intensive survey of plant communities in cultivated and non-cultivated habitats to define a pool of plants occurring in arable fields (weeds) and one of plants occurring only in open non-arable habitats (non-weeds) in France. We compared the two pools based on nine functional traits and three functional spaces (LHS, reproductive and resource requirement hypervolumes). Within the weed pool, we quantified the trait variation of weeds along a continuum of specialization to arable fields.

Key results: Weeds were mostly therophytes and had higher specific leaf area, earlier and longer flowering, and higher affinity for nutrient-rich, sunny and dry environments compared to non-weeds, although functional spaces of weeds and non-weeds largely overlapped. When fidelity to arable fields increased, the spectrum of weed ecological strategies decreased as did the overlap with non-weeds, especially for the resource requirement hypervolume.

Conclusions: Arable weeds constitute a delimited pool defined by a trait syndrome providing tolerance to the ecological filters of arable fields (notably, regular soil disturbances and fertilization). The identification of such a syndrome is of great interest to predict the weedy potential of newly established alien plants. An important reservoir of plants may also become weeds after changes in agricultural practices, considering the large overlap between weeds and non-weeds.

Keywords: agroecosystems; ecological strategies; environmental filtering; farmland biodiversity; hypervolume; intensive agricultural practices; plant functional niches; trait-based approach; weed fidelity index; weediness syndrome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Plant Weeds / physiology*