Journal of Plant Research

, Volume 129, Issue 3, pp 299–311 | Cite as

Optimality of nitrogen distribution among leaves in plant canopies

  • Kouki Hikosaka
JPR Symposium Responses of the Photosynthetic Systems to Spatio-temporal Variations in Light Environments: Scaling and Eco-devo Approaches


The vertical gradient of the leaf nitrogen content in a plant canopy is one of the determinants of vegetation productivity. The ecological significance of the nitrogen distribution in plant canopies has been discussed in relation to its optimality; nitrogen distribution in actual plant canopies is close to but always less steep than the optimal distribution that maximizes canopy photosynthesis. In this paper, I review the optimality of nitrogen distribution within canopies focusing on recent advancements. Although the optimal nitrogen distribution has been believed to be proportional to the light gradient in the canopy, this rule holds only when diffuse light is considered; the optimal distribution is steeper when the direct light is considered. A recent meta-analysis has shown that the nitrogen gradient is similar between herbaceous and tree canopies when it is expressed as the function of the light gradient. Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain why nitrogen distribution is suboptimal. However, hypotheses explain patterns observed in some specific stands but not in others; there seems to be no general hypothesis that can explain the nitrogen distributions under different conditions. Therefore, how the nitrogen distribution in canopies is determined remains open for future studies; its understanding should contribute to the correct prediction and improvement of plant productivity under changing environments.


Canopy photosynthesis Light extinction coefficient Nitrogen allocation Nitrogen use Optimization 



I thank Professors Niels Anten and Ülo Niinemets for helpful comments and Professor Tadaki Hirose for providing data on Solidago altissima canopy. The study was supported by KAKENHI (2114009, 25660113, 25440230, 25291095) and CREST, JST, Japan.


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Copyright information

© The Botanical Society of Japan and Springer Japan 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of Life SciencesTohoku UniversitySendaiJapan
  2. 2.CREST, JSTTokyoJapan

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