Plant and Soil

, Volume 334, Issue 1–2, pp 73–84 | Cite as

Plant nitrogen and phosphorus limitation in 98 North American grassland soils

  • Joseph Mitchell CraineEmail author
  • Randall D. Jackson
Regular Article


The availability of nutrients is a critical determinant of ecological dynamics in grasslands, but the relationships between soil resource availability and nutrient limitation across ecosystems are not clear. To better understand how soil nutrient availability determines nutrient limitation in vegetation, we grew the same species of grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) in 98 North American grassland soils and fertilized them factorially with nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). On average adding N, P, and the two nutrients together increased biomass relative to unfertilized plants by 81%, 22%, and 131%, respectively. Plants grown on low-P soils were not primarily limited by P. Instead, these plants were colimited by N and P, while plants grown on high-P soils were primarily limited by N and only secondarily limited by P. Limitation was not predicted by total soil N. The preponderance of colimitation between N and P on low-P soils suggests that low P availability alters the N cycle to constrain supplies to plants such that N and P are made available in proportion to their demand by plants.


Colimitation Grasslands Nitrogen Phosphorus Stoichiometry 



Mean annual precipitation


Mean annual temperature


Relative colimitation index



The authors would like to thank Ben Turner for advice on measuring P availability, Andrew Elmore for providing climate data and Ben Houlton for comments on limitation. Many individuals volunteered their time in providing soils for the experiment, especially The Nature Conservancy. JMC was funded by the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of BiologyKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA
  2. 2.Department of AgronomyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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