Nondestructive age estimation of mountain big sagebrush using morphological characteristics

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Current methods for determining plant age of shrub species require destructive sampling and annual growth ring analysis on the primary stem. Although individual plant ages can frequently be determined in this manner, the method is time consuming and of limited value for plants that have lost stem wood from stem splitting and rot. This study evaluated traits including plant height, crown area, subcanopy litter depth, percent crown mortality, bark furrow depth, bark fiber length, circumference and diameter of plant basal stem, and circumference of secondary and tertiary branches.We measured and harvested basal cross-sections from 163 plants of varying sizes from five locations in central and south-central Utah. Results support previous findings that stem girth has value for estimating mountain big sagebrush plant age and that this trait is a better indicator of age than any other tested traits. Although the relationship between stem diameter and plant age was significant, substantial stem size variability associated with plants of the same approximate age indicates that the method is most appropriate when precise age estimates are not required. This technique was developed specifically for mountain big sagebrush, but it is expected that it can be adapted for other sagebrush taxa.

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