Skip to main content

Genetic differentiation, phenotypic plasticity and adaptation in a hybridizing pair of a more common and a less common Carex species


Phenotypic variation may be genetically determined or reflect phenotypic plasticity. More common plants are expected to be less differentiated between and within regions and more adapted than less common ones. However, such differences might not develop in hybridizing species which cannot evolve completely independently. We collected 311 genets of Carex flava, 215 of C. viridula and 46 of their hybrid C. × subviridula from 42 natural populations in cold temperate Estonia, mild temperate Lowland Switzerland and alpine Highland Switzerland. Three plantlets from each genet were planted to three experimental gardens, one in each region. We measured survival, growth, reproduction and morphological traits. The experimental transplants showed strong plasticity and grew smallest in the alpine garden. The less common C. viridula was slightly more differentiated between regions of origin than the more common C. flava and the hybrid. However, this depended on the experimental garden. Significant origin-by-garden-by-taxon and taxon-by-garden interactions suggest differential adaptation among populations and taxa. Regional differed from non-regional plants in several traits indicating both adaptations and, especially for C. viridula, maladaptations to the home regions. For C. flava, plant seed production was higher when mean annual temperature and precipitation were more similar between population of origin and garden, suggesting local adaptation to climate. Hybrids were intermediate between parental taxa or more similar to one of them, which was retained across gardens. We conclude that plasticity, genetic variation and genotype–environment interactions all contributed to regional differentiation of the closely related species. Hybridization did not completely align evolutionary patterns, and the less common species showed slightly more genetic differentiation between populations and more maladapted traits than the more common one.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


Download references


We are thankful to the team of the Alpine Botanical Garden Schynige Platte, assistants at the University of Zurich and laboratory technicians at the University of Tartu for looking after and taking care of plants in the experimental gardens. We are also grateful to numerous people from the University of Bern who helped in measuring the plants during the experiment.


The work was supported by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research, institutional research funding (IUT 20-28, 20-29) and the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence EcolChange).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



LS and MF conceived the paper with BS and TO. LS performed the analyses and wrote the manuscript under the guidance of MF and with critical reviews and contributions from all coauthors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lisanna Schmidt.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schmidt, L., Schmid, B., Oja, T. et al. Genetic differentiation, phenotypic plasticity and adaptation in a hybridizing pair of a more common and a less common Carex species. Alp Botany 128, 149–167 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Carex flava group
  • Genotype-by-environment interaction
  • Performance
  • Regional adaptation
  • Transplant experiment
  • Variability