Fast-growing Acer rubrum differs from slow-growing Quercus alba in leaf, xylem and hydraulic trait coordination responses to simulated acid rain

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We investigated the effects of historic soil chemistry changes associated with acid rain, i.e., reduced soil pH and a shift from nitrogen (N)- to phosphorus (P)-limitation, on the coordination of leaf water demand and xylem hydraulic supply traits in two co-occurring temperate tree species differing in growth rate. Using a full-factorial design (N × P × pH), we measured leaf nutrient content, water relations, leaf-level and canopy-level gas exchange, total biomass and allocation, as well as stem xylem anatomy and hydraulic function for greenhouse-grown saplings of fast-growing Acer rubrum (L.) and slow-growing Quercus alba (L.). We used principle component analysis to characterize trait coordination. We found that N-limitation, but not P-limitation, had a significant impact on plant water relations and hydraulic coordination of both species. Fast-growing A. rubrum made hydraulic adjustments in response to N-limitation, but trait coordination was variable within treatments and did not fully compensate for changing allocation across N-availability. For slow-growing Q. alba, N-limitation engendered more strict coordination of leaf and xylem traits, resulting in similar leaf water content and hydraulic function across all treatments. Finally, low pH reduced the propensity of both species to adjust leaf water relations and xylem anatomical traits in response to nutrient manipulations. Our data suggest that a shift from N- to P-limitation has had a negative impact on the water relations and hydraulic function of A. rubrum to a greater extent than for Q. alba. We suggest that current expansion of A. rubrum populations could be tempered by acidic N-deposition, which may restrict it to more mesic microsites. The disruption of hydraulic acclimation and coordination at low pH is emphasized as an interesting area of future study.

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