Species ecology determines the role of nitrogen nutrition in the frost tolerance of pine seedlings.
Frost determines the evolution and distribution of plants in temperate and cold regions. Several environmental factors can influence frost acclimation of woody plants but the magnitude and direction of the effect of nitrogen (N) availability is controversial. We studied the effect of N availability on root and shoot frost tolerance in mid-fall and in winter in seedlings of four pines of contrasting ecology: Pinus nigra J.F. Arnold, P. pinaster Ait., P. pinea L. and P. halepensis Mill.. Organ N and soluble sugar concentration, and timing of cessation of shoot elongation were measured to assess the physiological mechanisms underlying frost acclimation. Nitrogen was supplied at high and low rates only during the pre-hardening period and at a moderate N rate during hardening in the fall. Shoot frost tolerance increased over winter while root frost tolerance did not change in any species. Pre-hardening N availability affected the frost tolerance of both roots and shoots, although the effect was species-specific: high N reduced the overall root and shoot frost tolerance in P. pinea and P. halepensis, and increased the frost tolerance in P. nigra, but had no effect in P. pinaster. Nitrogen supply in the fall consistently increased frost tolerance in all species. Differences in frost tolerance among species and N treatments were not explained by variations in organ N or soluble carbohydrate concentration, nor by timing of cessation of shoot elongation; however, the most frost tolerant species ceased elongation earlier than the least frost tolerant species. Despite the close phylogenetic relatedness of the studied species, the effect of N availability on seedling frost tolerance differed among species, indicating that species ecology (especially frost acclimation physiology) and timing of N supply drives the effect of N availability on frost tolerance of pine species.