Original Paper

Oecologia

, Volume 103, Issue 1, pp 10-16

First online:

The effects of shading and N status on root proliferation in nutrient patches by the perennial grass Agropyron desertorum in the field

  • Carol J. BilbroughAffiliated withDepartment of Rangeland Resources, Utah State UniversityThe Ecology Center, Utah State University Email author 
  • , Martyn M. CaldwellAffiliated withDepartment of Rangeland Resources, Utah State UniversityThe Ecology Center, Utah State University

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Abstract

Competition for light can affect exploitation of spatially heterogeneous soil resources. To evaluate the influence of shoot status on root growth responses in nutrient-rich soil patches, we studied the effects of shading and whole-plant nitrogen status on root growth in N-enriched and nonenriched patches by mature Agropyron desertorum plants growing in the field with below-ground competition. Roots in enriched patches had greater length to weight ratios (specific root length, SRL), indicating increased absorptive surface areas, compared with roots in control patches. Increased SRL was due to increased production and length of higher order laterals rather than morphological changes in roots of the same branching order. Although the pattern of root growth rates in patches was the same for shaded and unshaded plants, the magnitude of this response to enriched patches was damped by shading. Root relative growth rates (RGR) in N-enriched patches were reduced by more than 50% by short-term shading treatments (60% reduction in photosynthetic flux density), while root RGR in unenriched patches was unaffected by shading. Unexpectedly, plants with higher nitrogen status had greater root RGR in enriched patches than plants that had not received nitrogen supplement, again with no detectable effect on root RGR in the unenriched patches. Therefore, while both shading and plant N status affected the ability of roots to exploit enriched patches by proliferation, there was no stimulation or suppression of root growth in the unenriched, control patches. Thus, plants already under competitive pressure above ground for light and below ground for nutrients should be less able to rapidly respond to opportunities presented in nutrient patches and pulses.

Key words

Agropyron desertorum Roots Soil heterogeneity Nitrogen Shading