, Volume 194, Issue 2, pp 293-304
Date: 24 Apr 2007

Responses of Fraxinus excelsior seedlings to grass-induced above- and below-ground competition

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Abstract

The competitive interactions between woody seedlings and herbaceous vegetation have received increasing interest in recent years. However, little is known about the relative contributions and underlying mechanisms of above- and below-ground competition between species. We used a novel experimental approach to assess the responses of Fraxinus excelsior seedlings to different combinations of root and shoot competition imposed by the grass Dactylis glomerata under greenhouse conditions. Seedling growth was significantly reduced by competition for soil resources, but neither biomass nor height were significantly affected by shoot competition for light. Competitive response indices based on biomass confirmed that below-ground competition was more important than above-ground competition, and indicated that root and shoot competition did not interact to influence plant growth. Fraxinus biomass allocation and seedling traits were almost all significantly affected by root competition; these responses varied depending on the trait examined. In contrast, morphological responses to shoot competition were limited. In the absence of root competition, seedlings showed a significant increase in the biomass allocated to leaves and a greater leaf area ratio in response to shoot competition. Our findings suggest that morphological modifications help to mitigate the negative effects of competition, but the expression of plasticity may be suboptimal due to resource constraints. The present study also highlights the importance of appropriate experimental controls and analysis to avoid confounding effects of experimental design and ontogeny on the interpretation of competitive responses.