The influence of plant morphology and rainfall intensity on soil loss and runoff was determined at the plant scale for three representative species of a semi-arid patchy shrubland vegetation of east Spain, representing contrasting canopy structures and plant phenologies (Rosmarinus officinalis, Anthyllis cytisoidesandStipa tenacissima).
Twenty-seven microplots of less than 1 m2, each containing one single plant, were built to quantify runoff volume and sediment yield under the canopies of the three species. Runoff and rates of soil loss measured in these plots under natural rainfall conditions were compared with control microplots built in the bare inter-plant areas. Precipitation was automatically recorded and rainfall intensity calculated over a two-year period.
Results indicated that individual plants played a relevant role in interrill erosion control at the microscale. Compared with a bare soil surface, rates of soil loss and runoff reduction varied strongly depending on the species. Cumulative soil loss was reduced by 94·3, 88·0 and 30·2 per cent, and cumulative runoff volume was reduced by 66·4, 50·8 and 18·4 per cent under theRosmarinus, StipaandAnthylliscanopies, respectively, compared with a bare surface.Anthylliswas significantly less efficient than the two other species in reducing runoff volume under its canopy. Differences between species could only be identified above a rainfall intensity threshold of 20 mm h-1. The different plant morphologies and plant components explained the different erosive responses of the three species. Canopy cover played a major role in runoff and soil loss reduction. The presence of a second layer of protection at the soil surface (litter cover) was fundamental for erosion control during intense rainfall. Rainfall intensity and soil water status prior to rainfall strongly influenced runoff and soil loss rates. The possible use of these species in restoration programmes of degraded areas is discussed.