Recent models of tidal marsh evolution rely largely on the premise that plants are most productive at an optimal flooding regime that occurs when soil elevations are somewhere between mean sea level and mean high tide. Here, we use 4 years of manipulative “marsh organ” flooding experiments to test the generality of this conceptual framework and to examine how the optimal flooding frequency may change between years and locations. In our experiments, above and belowground growth of Schoenoplectus americanus was most rapid when flooded about 40% of the time in a rapidly submerging marsh and when flooded about 25% of the time in a historically stable marsh. Optimum flooding durations were nearly identical in each year of the experiment and did not differ for above and belowground growth. In contrast, above and belowground growth of Spartina patens decreased monotonically with increased flooding in all years and at both sites, indicating no optimal flooding frequency or elevation relative to sea level. Growth patterns in both species suggest a wider tolerance to flooding, and greater biomass for a given flooding duration, in the rapidly deteriorating marsh.
- Sea level