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Within-canopy variation in photosynthetic capacity, SLA and foliar N in temperate broad-leaved trees with contrasting shade tolerance

The leaf morphology and photosynthetic capacity of trees are remarkably plastic in response to intra-canopy light gradients. While most studies examined seedlings, it is not well understood how plasticity differs in mature trees among species with contrasting shade tolerance. We studied light-saturated net photosynthesis (Amax), maximum carboxylation rate (Vcmax), electron transport capacity (Jmax) and leaf dark respiration (Rd) along natural light gradients in the canopies of 26 adult trees of five broad-leaved tree species in a mixed temperate old-growth forest (Fraxinus excelsior, Acer pseudoplatanus, Carpinus betulus, Tilia cordata and Fagus sylvatica), representing a sequence from moderately light-demanding to highly shade-tolerant species. We searched for species differences in the dependence of photosynthetic capacity on relative irradiance (RI), specific leaf area (SLA) and nitrogen per leaf area (Na). The three shade-tolerant species (C. betulus, T. cordata,F. sylvatica) differed from the two more light-demanding species by the formation of shade leaves with particularly high SLA but relatively low Na and consequently lower area-based Amax, and a generally higher leaf morphological and functional plasticity across the canopy. Sun leaf morphology and physiology were more similar among the two groups. The three shade-tolerant species differed in their shade acclimation strategies which are primarily determined by the species’ plasticity in SLA. Under low light, T. cordata and F. sylvatica increased SLA, mass-based foliar N and leaf size, while C. betulus increased solely SLA exhibiting only low intra-crown plasticity in leaf morphology and N allocation patterns. This study with mature trees adds to our understanding of tree species differences in shade acclimation strategies under the natural conditions of a mixed old-growth forest.



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