Marschner Review

Plant and Soil

, Volume 350, Issue 1, pp 1-26

First online:

Nitrogen transformations in boreal forest soils—does composition of plant secondary compounds give any explanations?

  • Aino SmolanderAffiliated withVantaa Research Unit, The Finnish Forest Research Institute Email author 
  • , Sanna KanervaAffiliated withVantaa Research Unit, The Finnish Forest Research InstituteDepartment of Chemistry, University of Helsinki
  • , Bartosz AdamczykAffiliated withVantaa Research Unit, The Finnish Forest Research Institute
  • , Veikko KitunenAffiliated withVantaa Research Unit, The Finnish Forest Research Institute

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Two major groups of plant secondary compounds, phenolic compounds and terpenes, may according to current evidence mediate changes in soil C and N cycling, but their exact role and importance in boreal forest soils are largely unknown. In this review we discuss the occurrence of these compounds in forest plants and soils, the great challenges faced when their concentrations are measured, their possible effects in regulating soil C and N transformations and finally, we attempt to evaluate their role in connection with certain forest management practices. In laboratory experiments, volatile monoterpenes, in the concentrations found in the coniferous soil atmosphere, have been shown to inhibit net nitrogen mineralization and nitrification; they probably provide a C source to part of the soil microbial population but are toxic to another part. However, there is a large gap in our knowledge of the effects of higher terpenes on soil processes. According to results from laboratory experiments, an important group of phenolic compounds, condensed tannins, may also affect microbial processes related to soil C and N cycling; one mechanism is binding of proteins and certain other organic N-containing compounds. Field studies revealed interesting correlations between the occurrence of terpenes or phenolic compounds and C or net N mineralization in forest soils; in some cases these correlations point in the same direction as do the results from laboratory experiments, but not always. Different forest management practices may result in changes in both the quantity and quality of terpenes and phenolic compounds entering the soil. Possible effects of tree species composition, clear-cutting and removal of logging residue for bioenergy on plant secondary compound composition in soil are discussed in relation to changes observed in soil N transformations.


Carbon mineralization Forest soil Nitrogen cycling Phenolic compounds Tannins Terpenes Tree species