Space sequestration below ground in old-growth spruce-beech forests - signs for facilitation?
Scientists are currently debating the effects of mixing tree species for the complementary resource acquisition in forest ecosystems. In four unmanaged old-growth spruce-beech forests in strict nature reserves in southern Sweden and northern Germany we assessed forest structure and fine rooting profiles and traits (= 2 mm) by fine root sampling and the analysis of fine root morphology and biomass. These studies were conducted in selected tree groups with four different interspecific competition perspectives: (1) spruce as a central tree, (2) spruce as competitor, (3) beech as a central tree, and (4) beech as competitor. Mean values of life fine root attributes like biomass (FRB), length (FRL), and root area index (RAI) were significantly lower for spruce than for beech in mixed stands. Vertical profiles of fine root attributes adjusted to one unit of basal area (BA) exhibited partial root system stratification when central beech is growing with spruce competitors. In this constellation, beech was able to raise its specific root length (SRL) and therefore soil exploration efficiency in the subsoil, while increasing root biomass partitioning into deeper soil layers. According to relative values of fine root attributes (rFRA), asymmetric below-ground competition was observed favoring beech over spruce, in particular when central beech trees are admixed with spruce competitors. We conclude that beech fine rooting is facilitated in the presence of spruce by lowering competitive pressure compared to intraspecific competition whereas the competitive pressure for spruce is increased by beech admixture. Our findings underline the need of spatially differentiated approaches to assess interspecific competition below ground. Single-tree approaches and simulations of below-ground competition are required to focus rather on microsites populated by tree specimens as the basic spatial study area.