Rare plants are often associated with distinctive soil types, and understanding why endemic species occur in unique environments is fundamental for their management. At Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in southern Nevada, USA we evaluated whether the limited distribution of endangered Amargosa niterwort (Nitrophila mohavensis) is explained by this species’ tolerance of saline soils on salt-encrusted mud flats compared with the broadly distributed desert saltgrass (Distichlis spicata var. stricta). We simultaneously explored whether niterwort distribution is restricted from expanding due to interspecific competition with saltgrass.
Surface soils collected throughout niterwort's range were unexpectedly less saline with lower extractable Na, seasonal electroconductivity, and Na absorption ratio, and higher soil moisture than in adjacent saltgrass or mixed shrub habitats. Comparison of niterwort and saltgrass growth along an experimental salinity gradient in a greenhouse demonstrated lower growth of niterwort at all but the highest NaCl concentrations. Although growth of niterwort ramets was similar when transplanted into both habitats at the refuge below Crystal Reservoir, niterwort reproductive effort was considerably higher in saltgrass compared to its own habitat, implying reallocation of resources to sexual reproduction to maximize fitness when the probability of ramet mortality increases with greater salinity stress. Saltgrass was not a demonstrated direct competitor of niterwort; however, this species is known to increase soil salinity by exuding salt ions and through litterfall. Niterwort conservation will benefit from protecting hydrological processes that reduce salinity stress and preventing saltgrass colonization into niterwort habitat.