Reproductive Biology of the invasive plant Elaeagnus umbellata: breeding system, pollinators, and implications for invasive spread

Nathan Soley, Southern Illinois University Carbondale


Reproductive studies in invasive plants are necessary for an understanding of their potential to establish and spread in foreign environments. Elaeagnus umbellata Thunb. (autumn olive) is an invasive woody shrub that flowers early in the spring and is often noted for its abundant fruit set. This study examined the reproductive biology of E. umbellata in Illinois, where it is highly invasive. Hand-pollination experiments were performed to determine the breeding system of E. umbellata, and floral visitors were collected to determine its pollinators. Experiments showed that E. umbellata is a predominantly outcrossing species with a self-incompatible breeding system. However, individual variation was detected in several reproductive characteristics. Pollen tube analyses revealed that a small percentage of individuals allow successful self-pollen tube growth, and self-fruit set resulting from automatic self-pollination (autogamy) was relatively high in a few plants. Automatic self-pollination is possible because the male and female parts of flowers mature sychronously, but the likelihood of autogamy may vary among individuals due to variability in the spatial separation of male and female parts (herkogamy). Variability in the incompatibility system and the level of herkogamy may impact the outcrossing rates and reproductive success of individuals. The majority of floral visitors to E. umbellata were generalist pollinators. Frequently visiting bees included small and large species such as native Andrena spp., Augochlorella aurata, Bombus spp., Ceratina calcarata, Xylocopa virginica, and the introduced Apis mellifera. Bombylius major (large bee fly) and the moth Mythimna unipuncta (armyworm) were also frequent visitors. Most of the above insect taxa are pollinators of E. umbellata based on analysis of pollen on insect bodies. E. umbellata is likely to achieve its abundant fruit set where these common pollinators and other E. umbellata are present. However, in my study sites, many individuals experienced low fruit set on branches that were open to pollinator visitation, suggesting pollen limitation may be common in some years and at certain sites. The discovery of autogamous individuals demonstrates that some E. umbellata individuals may be able to establish and spread even when mates or pollinators are limiting.



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