Extensive clonal spread and extreme longevity in saw palmetto, a foundation clonal plant

Mizuki K. Takahashi, Bucknell University
Liana M. Horner, Bucknell University
Toshiro Kubota, Susquehanna University
Nathan A. Keller, Bucknell University
Warren G. Abrahamson II, Bucknell University


The lack of effective tools has hampered our ability to assess the size, growth and ages of clonal plants. With Serenoa repens (saw palmetto) as a model, we introduce a novel analytical frame work that integrates DNA fingerprinting and mathematical modelling to simulate growth and estimate ages of clonal plants. We also demonstrate the application of such life-history information of clonal plants to provide insight into management plans. Serenoa is an ecologically important foundation species in many Southeastern United States ecosystems; yet, many land managers consider Serenoa a troublesome invasive plant. Accordingly, management plans have been developed to reduce or eliminate Serenoa with little understanding of its life history. Using Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms, we genotyped 263 Serenoa and 134 Sabal etonia (a sympatric non-clonal palmetto) samples collected from a 20 x 20 m study plot in Florida scrub. Sabal samples were used to assign small field-unidentifiable palmettos to Serenoa or Sabal and also as a negative control for clone detection. We then mathematically modelled clonal networks to estimate genet ages. Our results suggest that Serenoa predominantly propagate via vegetative sprouts and 10000-year-old genets maybe common, while showing no evidence of clone formation by Sabal. The results of this and our previous studies suggest that: (i) Serenoa has been part of scrub associations for thousands of years, (ii) Serenoa invasions are unlikely and (ii) once Serenoa is eliminated from local communities, its restoration will be difficult. Reevaluation of the current management tools and plans is an urgent task.