The positive growth response of healthy young trees to density reduction is well known. In contrast, large old trees are usually thought to be intrinsically limited in their ability to respond to increased growing space; therefore, density reduction is seldom used in stands of old-growth trees. We tested the null hypothesis that old-growth trees are incapable of responding with increased growth following density reduction. The diameter growth response of 271 Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco), ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws) and sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana Dougl.) trees ranging in age from 158 to 650 years was examined 20 to 50 years after density reduction. Density reduction involved either light thinning with removal of less vigorous trees, or shelterwood treatments in which overstory trees were not removed. Ratios of basal area growth after treatment to basal area growth before treatment, and several other measures of growth, all indicated that the old trees sometimes benefited and were not harmed by density reduction. Growth increased by 10% or more for 68% of the trees in treated stands, and nearly 30% of trees increased growth by over 50%. This growth response persisted for at least 20 years. During this 20-year period, only three trees in treated stands (1.5%) exhibited a rapid decrease in growth, whereas growth decreased in 64% of trees in untreated stands. The length of time before a growth response to density reduction occurred varied from 5 to 25 years, with the greatest growth response often occurring 20 to 25 years after treatment. These results have important implications both for the basic biology of aging in woody plants as well as for silvicultural practices in forests with old-growth trees.
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Response of old-growth conifers to reduction in stand density in western Oregon forests