, Volume 89, Issue 1, pp 10-16

Leaf life spans in wild perennial herbaceous plants: a survey and attempts at a functional interpretation

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Leaf longevity in 29 herbaceous plant species of Central Europe was studied by inspecting tagged leaves at weekly intervals. About half of the species are elements of the lowland meadow flora, the other half comprises a representative sample of species from the highest sites where vascular plants grow in the Alps. Shaded and water-stressed sites were avoided. Overall mean leaf longevity did not differ significantly between sites and amounted to 71±5 days at low and 68±4 days at high altitude. Leaf life spans ranged (with no clear altitudinal trend) from 41 to 95 days. Low-altitude forbs and grasses produced several leaf cohorts during their growth period, while most alpine species produced only one. Correlations were found between leaf duration and percent nitrogen content and carbon-cost/carbon-gain ratios, but not with leaf dry mass per unit leaf area and photosynthetic capacity alone. As leaf life spans increase, more C tends to be invested per unit CO2 uptake and less N is invested per unit invested C. Thus, mass relationships rather than area relationships seem to be linked to leaf life span in these species, suggesting that leaf duration is associated with properties other than the efficiency of light utilization (e.g. mechanical strength, herbivory or pathogen resistance). It seems that the explanations of leaf duration that have been developed for evergreen/deciduous plants and for plants along steep light gradients do not apply to the variable life spans in leaves of perennial herbaceous plants of open habitats.