Drought susceptibility in emergent wetland angiosperms: a comparison of water deficit growth in five herbaceous perennials

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Freshwater wetlands often exist as transitional areas between terrestrial uplands and deep open water. Thus they are fundamentally sensitive to changes in hydrology. Some of the more dramatic changes in wetland water supply occur during extensive droughts, where both precipitation and soil water table markedly decline. While it is generally understood that herbaceous wetland macrophytes are more sensitive to decreased water availability than wetland trees, the degree of susceptibility among wetland herbs remains relatively unexplored. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to evaluate plant growth responses of five herbaceous wetland species (monocots Carex alata, Juncus effusus, and Peltandra virginica, and dicots Saururus cernuus, and Justicia americana) to simulated drought conditions (up to 6 weeks in a 1-in-25-year precipitation low with receding soil water tables). Of the five species studied, three (J. americana, S. cernuus, and J. effusus) had no survivors after 6 weeks of simulated drought. J. americana, appeared to be the most sensitive to water deprivation with a 67% decrease in plant phytomass and an 85% decrease in leaf area with only 2 weeks of drought, and complete mortality after 3 weeks. While P. virginica also had significant decreases in biomass, leaf area, relative growth rate (RGR) and unit leaf rate (ULR), in as little as 2 weeks of drought, no noticeable decreases in survival were observed. In contrast, when J. effusus experienced between 2- and 4-weeks of water deprivation, there were significant increases in RGR, ULR, phytomass, leaf area, and shoot:root ratios. S. cernuus and C. alata remained relatively unaffected following 4 weeks of drought; however by the fifth week, there were significant declines in leaf area for both species. In general, this study provides experimental evidence on how herbaceous macrophytes grow under drought conditions. This basic understanding is fundamental if we are to develop better working models on how wetlands will respond to changing environmental conditions that lead to decreased water supply.

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