Leaf nitrogen distribution in relation to leaf age and photon flux density in dominant and subordinate plants in dense stands of a dicotyledonous herb
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We studied the effects of photon flux density (PFD) and leaf position, a measure of developmental age, on the distribution of nitrogen content per unit leaf area (Narea) in plants of different heights, in dense stands grown at two nitrogen availabilities and in solitary plants of the erect dicotyledonous herb Xanthium canadense. Taller more dominant plants received higher PFD levels and experienced a larger difference in relative PFD between their youngest and oldest leaves than shorter subordinate plants in the stands. Differences in PFD between leaves of solitary plants were assumed to be minimal and differences in leaf traits, found for these plants, could thus be mainly attributed to an effect of leaf position. In the solitary plants, Narea decreased with leaf position while in the plants from the stands it decreased with decreasing relative PFD, indicating both factors to be important in determining the distribution of Narea. Due to the effect of leaf position on Narea, leaves of subordinate plants had a higher Narea than older leaves of dominant plants which were at the same height or slightly higher in the canopy. Consequently, the Narea distribution patterns of individual plants plotted as a function of relative PFD were steeper, and probably closer to the optimal distribution which maximizes photosynthesis, than the average distribution in the stand. Leaves of subordinate plants had a lower mass per unit area (LMA) than those of dominant plants. In the dominant plants, LMA decreased with decreasing relative PFD (and with leaf position) while in the subordinate plants it increased. This surprising result for the subordinate plants can be explained by the fact that, during the course of a growing season, these plants became increasingly shaded and newer leaves were thus formed at progressively lower light availability. This indicates that LMA was strongly determined by the relative PFD at leaf formation and to a lesser extent by the current PFD. Leaf N content per unit mass (Nmass) was strongly determined by leaf position independent of relative PFD. This indicates that Nmass is strongly ontogenetically related to the leaf-aging process while changes in Narea, in response to PFD, were regulated through changes in LMA.
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