, Volume 96, Issue 4, pp 548–554 | Cite as

Phenotypic plasticity in response to nitrate supply of an inherently fast-growing species from a fertile habitat and an inherently slow-growing species from an infertile habitat

  • C. A. D. M. Van de Vijver
  • R. G. A. Boot
  • H. Poorter
  • H. Lambers
Original Papers


The aim of the present study was to investigate possible differences in plasticity between a potentially fast-growing and a potentially slow-growing grass species. To this end, Holcus lanatus (L.) and Deschampsia flexuosa (L.) Trin., associated with fertile and infertile habitats, respectively, were grown in sand at eight nitrate concentrations. When plants obtained a fresh weight of approximately 5 g, biomass allocation, specific leaf area, the rate of net photosynthesis, the organic nitrogen concentration of various plant parts and the root weight at different soil depths were determined. There were linear relationships between the morphological and physiological features studied and the In-transformed nitrate concentration supplied, except for the specific leaf area and root nitrogen concentration of H. lanatus, which did not respond to the nitrate concentration. The root biomass of H. lanatus was invariably distributed over the soil layers than that of D. flexuosa. However, D. flexuosa allocated more root biomass to lower soil depths with decreasing nitrate concentration, in contrast to H. lanatus, which did not respond. The relative response to nitrate supply, i.e. the value of a character at a certain nitrate level relative to the value of that character at the highest nitrate supply, was used as a measure for plasticity. For a number of parameters (leaf area ratio, root weight ratio, root nitrogen concentration, vertical root biomass distribution and rate of net photosynthesis per unit leaf weight) the potentially slow-growing D. flexuosa exhibited a higher phenotypic plasticity than the potentially fast-growing H. lanatus. These findings are in disagreement with current literature. Possible explanations for this discrepancy are discussed in terms of differences in experimental approach as well as fundamental differences in specific traits between fast- and slow-growing grasses.

Key words

Biomass allocation Nitrogen supply Phenotypic plasticity Photosynthesis Root distribution 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Berendse F, Elberse WT (1989) Competition and nutrient losses from the plant. In: Lambers H, Cambridge ML, Konings H, Pons TL (eds) Causes and consequences of variation in growth rate and productivity of higher plants. SPB Academic, The Hague, pp 269–284Google Scholar
  2. Berendse F, Elberse WT, Geerts RHME (1992) Competition and nitrogen loss from plants in grassland ecosystems. Ecology 73:46–53Google Scholar
  3. Boot RGA (1989) The significance of size and morphology of root systems for nutrient acquisition and competition. In: Lambers H, Cambridge ML, Konings H, Pons TL (es) Causes and consequences of variation in growth rate and productivity of higher plants. SPB Academic, The Hague, pp 299–311Google Scholar
  4. Boot RGA, Mensink M (1990) The effect of nitrogen supply on the size and morphology of root systems of perennial grasses from contrasting habitats. Plant Soil 129:291–299Google Scholar
  5. Boot RGA, Mensink M (1991) The influence of nitrogen availability on growth parameters of fast- and slow-growing perennial grasses. In: Atkinson D (ed) Plant root growth, an ecological perspective. (Special publication of the British Ecological Society). Blackwell Scientific, Oxford, pp 161–168Google Scholar
  6. Boot RGA, Schildwacht PM, Lambers H (1992) Partitioning of nitrogen and biomass at a range of N-addition rates and their consequences for growth and gas exchange in two perennial grasses from inland dunes. Physiol Plant 86:152–160Google Scholar
  7. Bradshaw AD (1965) Evolutionary significance of phenotypic plasticity in plants. Adv Genet 13:115–155Google Scholar
  8. Bradshaw AD, Chadwick MJ, Jowett D, Snaydon RWD (1964) Experimental investigations into the mineral nutrition of several grass species. J Ecol 52:665–676Google Scholar
  9. Brouwer R (1963) Some aspects of the equilibrium between overground and underground plant parts. Meded Inst Biol Scheik Onderz 213:31–39Google Scholar
  10. Bunce JA, Ward DA (1985) Errors in differential infrared carbon dioxide analysis resulting from water vapour. Photosynth Res 6:289–294Google Scholar
  11. Caemmerer S von, Farquhar GD (1981) Some relationships between the biochemistry of photosynthesis and the gas exchange of leaves. Planta 153:376–387Google Scholar
  12. Chapin FS III (1980) The mineral nutrition of wild plants. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 11:233–260Google Scholar
  13. Chapin FS III (1988) Ecological aspects of plant mineral nutrition. Adv Min Nutr 3:161–191Google Scholar
  14. Evans JR (1989) Photosynthesis and nitrogen relationships in leaves of C3 plants. Oecologia 78:9–19Google Scholar
  15. Fichtner K, Schulze ED (1992) The effect of nitrogen nutrition on growth and biomass partitioning of annual plants originating from habitats of different nitrogen availability. Oecologia 92:236–241Google Scholar
  16. Grime JP (1979) Plant strategies and vegetation processes. Wiley, ChichesterGoogle Scholar
  17. Grime JP, Crick JC, Rincon JE (1986) The ecological significance of plasticity. In: Jennings DH, Trewavas AJ (eds) Plasticity in plants. The Company of Biologists, Cambridge, pp 5–30Google Scholar
  18. Grime JP, Hodgson JC, Hunt R (1988) Comparative plant ecology. Unwin Hyman, LondonGoogle Scholar
  19. Hunt R, Nicholls AO (1986) Stress and the coarse control of growth and root-shoot partitioning in herbaceous plants. Oikos 47:149–158Google Scholar
  20. Ingestad T (1982) Relative addition rate and external concentration, driving variables used in plant nutrition research. Plant Cell Environ. 443–453Google Scholar
  21. Lambers H, Poorter H (1992) Inherent variation in growth rate between higher plants: a search for physiological causes and ecological consequences. Adv Ecol Res 23:187–261Google Scholar
  22. Lambers H, Posthumus F, Stulen F, Lanting L, Dijk SJ van de, Hofstra R (1981) Energy metabolism of Plantago major ssp. major as dependent on the supply of nutrients. Physiol Plant 51:245–252Google Scholar
  23. Poorter H, Pothmann P (1992) Growth and carbon economy of a fast-growing and slow-growing species as dependent on ontogeny. New Phytol 120:159–166Google Scholar
  24. Poorter H, Remkes C (1990) Leaf area ratio and net assimilation rate of 24 wild species differing in relative growth rate. Oecologia 83:553–559Google Scholar
  25. Poorter H, Van der Werf A, Atkin OK, Lambers H (1991) Respiratory energy requirements of roots vary with the potential growth rate of a plant species. Physiol Plant 83:469–475Google Scholar
  26. Robinson D (1991) Strategies of optimizing growth. In: Porter JH, Lawlor DW (eds) Plant growth: interactions with nutrition and environment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 177–205Google Scholar
  27. Robinson D, Rorison IH (1985) A quantitative analysis of the relationship between root distribution and nitrogen uptake from soil by two grass species. J Soil Sci 36:71–85Google Scholar
  28. Robinson D, Rorison IH (1987) Root hairs and plant growth at low nitrogen availabilities. New Phytol 107:681–693Google Scholar
  29. Robinson D, Rorison IH (1988) Plasticity in grass species in relation to nitrogen supply. Funct Ecol 2:249–257Google Scholar
  30. Schlichting CD (1986) The evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 17:667–693Google Scholar
  31. Van der Werf A, Welschen R, Lambers H (1992) Respiratory losses increase with decreasing inherent growth rate of a species and with decreasing nitrate supply: A search for explanations for these observations. In: Lambers H, Van der Plas LHW (eds) Molecular, biochemical and physiological aspects of plant respiration. SPB Academic, The Hague, pp 421–432Google Scholar
  32. Van der Werf A, Van Nuenen M, Visser A, Lambers H (1993) Contribution of physiological and morphological plant traits to a species' competitive ability at high and low nitrogen supply: a hypothesis for inherently fast- and slow-growing monocotyledonous species. Oecologia 94:434–440Google Scholar
  33. Waring RH, McDonald AJS, Larsson S, Ericsson T, Wiren A, Arwidsson E, Ericsson A, Lohammar T (1985) Differences in chemical composition of plants grown at constant relative growth rates with stable mineral nutrition. Oecologia 66:157–160Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. A. D. M. Van de Vijver
    • 1
  • R. G. A. Boot
    • 1
  • H. Poorter
    • 1
  • H. Lambers
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Plant Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations