Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 November 2009
Seed banks are often crucial for the survival of plant species, especially short-lived ones. Nevertheless, empirical studies about the fate of seeds under natural conditions are scarce, particularly for parasitic plants. Therefore, fresh seeds of the holoparasitic Cuscuta epithymum were buried in the field under natural conditions in Belgium or kept at room temperature for up to 31 months, and germination was tested periodically by incubating seeds in light at 23°C. Buried C. epithymum seeds had cyclic changes in their germinability, while those stored dry at room temperature never germinated without scarification. Buried seeds exhibited a seasonal cycle of physiological dormancy, the first to be reported for a species with combinational (i.e. physical+physiological) dormancy. The physiological dormancy of the embryo was broken during winter ( ≤ 5°C) but induced during exposure to late spring temperatures (>10°C). Therefore, germination of C. epithymum seeds is fine tuned to seasonal temperature changes. Each year only a portion of the viable seeds could germinate. The portion of seeds buried in the soil that remained available for delayed germination, i.e. in the seed bank, decreased rather quickly, with only 8.5% of them being viable after 31 months of burial; all seeds stored in the laboratory remained viable. Nonetheless, we concluded that some C. epithymum seeds are capable of surviving for several years in the soil. These data indicate that the parasite is well adapted to survive in a dynamic heathland landscape where conditions for survival change constantly, but it is still sensitive to local extinction.