Plant and Soil

, Volume 299, Issue 1, pp 195–213

Spatial and temporal patterns of root distribution in developing stands of four woody crop species grown with drip irrigation and fertilization

Regular Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11104-007-9375-5

Cite this article as:
Coleman, M. Plant Soil (2007) 299: 195. doi:10.1007/s11104-007-9375-5


In forest trees, roots mediate such significant carbon fluxes as primary production and soil CO2 efflux. Despite the central role of roots in these critical processes, information on root distribution during stand establishment is limited, yet must be described to accurately predict how various forest types, which are growing with a range of resource limitations, might respond to environmental change. This study reports root length density and biomass development in young stands of eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoidies Bartr.) and American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis L.) that have narrow, high resource site requirements, and compares them with sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua L.) and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.), which have more robust site requirements. Fine roots (<1 mm), medium roots (1 to 5 mm) and coarse roots (>5 mm) were sampled to determine spatial distribution in response to fertilizer and irrigation treatments delivered through drip irrigation tubes. Root length density and biomass were predominately controlled by stand development, depth and proximity to drip tubes. After accounting for this spatial and temporal variation, there was a significant increase in RLD with fertilization and irrigation for all genotypes. The response to fertilization was greater than that of irrigation. Both fine and coarse roots responded positively to resources delivered through the drip tube, indicating a whole-root-system response to resource enrichment and not just a feeder root response. The plastic response to drip tube water and nutrient enrichment demonstrate the capability of root systems to respond to supply heterogeneity by increasing acquisition surface. Fine-root biomass, root density and specific root length were greater for broadleaved species than pine. Roots of all genotypes explored the rooting volume within 2 years, but this occurred faster and to higher root length densities in broadleaved species, indicating they had greater initial opportunity for resource acquisition than pine. Sweetgum’s root characteristics and its response to resource availability were similar to the other broadleaved species, despite its functional resemblance to pine regarding robust site requirements. It was concluded that genotypes, irrigation and fertilization significantly influenced tree root system development, which varied spatially in response to resource-supply heterogeneity created by drip tubes. Knowledge of spatial and temporal patterns of root distribution in these stands will be used to interpret nutrient acquisition and soil respiration measurements.


Functional groupsRoot length densitySoil heterogeneityStand developmentVertical root distributionWoody crops



specific root length


root length density


control treatment






irrigation plus fertilization


horizontal distance from the tree parallel to the drip tube


horizontal distance from the tree perpendicular to the drip tube


eastern cottonwood clone from Issaquena County, MS, USA


eastern cottonwood clone from Brazos County, TX, USA

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southern Research StationUSDA Forest ServiceAikenUSA