Original Paper


, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 653-661

First online:

Defoliation increases risk of carbon starvation in root systems of mature aspen

  • Simon M. LandhäusserAffiliated withDepartment of Renewable Resources, School of Forest Science and Management, University of Alberta Email author 
  • , Victor J. LieffersAffiliated withDepartment of Renewable Resources, School of Forest Science and Management, University of Alberta

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Large trees are noted to decline and die over several years after defoliation or extended periods of drought. The underlying mechanisms of this decline are thought to be driven by moisture limitations to photosynthesis, but alternative considerations also suggest carbon storage limitations as a driver. This research assesses the non-structural carbohydrate reserves in crowns and roots tissues during and after defoliation by insects in trembling aspen. We monitored the non-structural carbon reserves of nine tall mature aspen forest stands over 8 years, including two defoliation events. We report on the carbohydrate dynamics in root and crown tissues during and after defoliation. Following defoliation, branch reserves recovered to levels of undefoliated control trees within the same season, while roots took up to 2 years to recover. We argue that in large trees, tissues closest to the foliage are the first sinks to access C in the phloem stream, while roots, which are more distal and separated by a long bole, will only receive adequate supplies of C when the other more proximate sinks are sated. These results support the hypothesis that in times of limited carbon assimilation, root tissues in mature trees experience the longest reduction in carbon reserves, which likely plays a critical role in tree decline and mortality.


C-limitation in roots Defoliation Non-structural carbohydrate reserves Phloem transport in tall trees Populus tremuloides Starch