Intraspecific growth and functional leaf trait responses to natural soil resource gradients for conifer species with contrasting leaf habit

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Interspecific relationships among species mean leaf traits, performance and species resource/climate distributions help provide the foundation for a predictive, functionally based plant ecology. Intraspecific responses of leaf traits and performance to resource gradients and how these vary among species may be equally important but have received less attention. Here, we examine relationships between proxies of soil resource availability, leaf traits and growth (height at 25 years, SI25) for winter deciduous Larix decidua Mill. and evergreen Pinus resinosa Ait. trees distributed over soil resource gradients in the Great Lakes region of North America. We predicted that (i) leaf trait responses to soil resources within species will be similar to reported distributions of mean leaf traits over soil resource gradients among species; (ii) soil resource-related variation in leaf traits can help explain SI25; and (iii) SI25 will be greater for Larix than Pinus at higher soil resources and greater for Pinus than Larix at lower soil resources and this pattern will be associated with species differences in leaf trait responses to soil resources. Among the measured leaf traits (live N, Mg, Ca, K, P, and Mn, litter N, N resorption, carbon isotope discrimination, specific leaf area, lifespan), soil resources only impacted live and litter N for both species and K for Pinus. In turn, only the leaf traits responsive to soil resources affected SI25 in the expected manner. Larix had greater SI25 than Pinus across soil resource gradients and both species had similar growth and leaf trait sensitivities to resources. In summary: (i) several leaf traits reported to be associated with performance and edaphic distributions across species were, within species, unresponsive to nitrogen and water availability and unrelated to growth; (ii) leaf N showed high plasticity to soil resources and this plasticity was functionally relevant to growth over its entire range of response; (iii) large species-level differences in leaf traits between Larix and Pinus did not translate into different leaf trait and growth responses to soil resources.

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