, Volume 158, Issue 1, pp 95–107 | Cite as

Phenolic-rich leaf carbon fractions differentially influence microbial respiration and plant growth

  • Courtney L. Meier
  • William D. Bowman
Ecosystem Ecology - Original Paper


Phenolics can reduce soil nutrient availability, either indirectly by stimulating microbial nitrogen (N) immobilization or directly by enhancing physical protection within soil. Phenolic-rich plants may therefore negatively affect neighboring plant growth by restricting the N supply. We used a slow-growing, phenolic-rich alpine forb, Acomastylis rossii, to test the hypothesis that phenolic-rich carbon (C) fractions stimulate microbial population growth and reduce plant growth. We generated low-molecular-weight (LMW) fractions, tannin fractions, and total soluble C fractions from A. rossii and measured their effects on soil respiration and growth of Deschampsia caespitosa, a fast-growing, co-dominant grass. Fraction effects fell into two distinct categories: (1) fractions did not increase soil respiration and killed D. caespitosa plants, or (2) fractions stimulated soil respiration and reduced plant growth and plant N concentration while simultaneously inhibiting root growth. The LMW phenolic-rich fractions increased soil respiration and reduced plant growth more than tannins. These results suggest that phenolic compounds can inhibit root growth directly as well as indirectly affect growth by reducing pools of plant available N by stimulating soil microbes. Both mechanisms illustrate how below-ground phenolic effects may influence the growth of neighboring plants. We also examined patterns of foliar phenolic concentrations among populations of A. rossii across a natural productivity gradient (productivity was used as a proxy for competition intensity). Concentrations of some LMW phenolics increased significantly in more productive sites where A. rossii is a competitive equal with the faster growing D. caespitosa. Taken together, our results contribute important information to the growing body of evidence indicating that the quality of C moving from plants to soils can have significant effects on neighboring plant performance, potentially associated with phytoxic effects, and indirect effects on soil biogeochemistry.


Allelopathy Low-molecular-weight phenolics Mineral nutrition Phenolics Plant growth Plant secondary compounds Plant–soil interactions Soil nitrogen Tannins 



Field and laboratory assistance for this study were provided by Heather Bechtold, Kimberly Lohnas, Torrin Hultgren, Damaris Means, and Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi. Ann Hagerman and Jack Schultz provided germane advice for phenolic extraction and analyses. Helpful editorial comments on an earlier version of this manuscript were contributed by Deane Bowers, Noah Fierer, Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi, Sasha Reed, Nataly Ascarrunz, and Ann Hagerman. Funding sources included the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NSF-sponsored Niwot Ridge LTER program, the John Marr Memorial Ecology Fund, and a Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology grant awarded to CLM. All experiments complied with current USA law.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mountain Research Station, Institute of Arctic and Alpine ResearchUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA

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