Highlights: Understorey plant species diversity significantly increases with the age of a Scots pine stand; Biomass of mosses decreases by a quarter, while biomass of herbs increases several times; Total understorey’s carbon stock increases over three times. The highest amount of carbon is accumulated in understorey species like Vaccinium myrtillus and Dicranum polysetum; The growing proportion of vascular plants in the understorey biomass results in an increase in the understorey C/N ratio.
The purpose of this study was to examine how the age of a stand of post-agricultural Scots pine forests affects the species composition, biomass and the carbon stock of the forest understorey. The community structure and species composition were studied in 75 plots (100 m2 in size), the amount of biomass, organic carbon and total nitrogen were analysed in 75 subplots (1/16 m2 in size). The plots were located in 21 plantations with the stand age of 41–60, 61–80 and over 80-years. Results show that the understorey species diversity increased with the increasing age of Scots pine stands, and the structure and species composition of secondary forests (although managed for timber production) became similar to the fresh pine forest of the European temperate region (Leucobryo-Pinetum community). Despite the increasing species diversity, however, only six understorey vascular and moss species played an important role in the biomass accumulation and C sequestration. Due to the differences in the dominant species composition, the total amount of understorey biomass significantly differed among the forest stands. The mean moss biomass ranged from 3046 kg ha–1 in 41–60-year-old stands, trough 2686 kg ha–1 in 61–80-year-old stands to 2273 kg ha–1 in over 80-year-old stands, and the mean understorey vascular plant biomass amounted to 2 kg ha–1, 1924 kg ha–1 and 3508 kg ha–1, respectively. The concentration of organic C varied considerably between species; it was the highest in Vaccinium myrtillus (50.6%) and in Dicranum polysetum (49.5%). The total mass of C was nearly 800 kg ha–1 in the youngest forests, in the subsequent age series it was two times higher and 3.5 times higher in the oldest ones. Differences in the species composition and in the C/N ratio in different species (generally higher for vascular plants and lower for mosses) were expressed in an increase in the understorey C/N ratio, which was 39.5, 46.6 and 48.6, respectively.