Foliar chemistry of balsam fir and red spruce in relation to elevation and the canopy light gradient in the mountains of the northeastern United States

Richardson, A.D.

Plant and Soil 260(1/2): 291-299


ISSN/ISBN: 0032-079X
DOI: 10.1023/b:plso.0000030179.02819.85
Accession: 004165939

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Red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea [L.] Mill) are the dominant conifer species at treeline in the mountains of the northeastern United States. The objective of this study was to investigate changes in foliar chemistry of these species along both elevational (below, at, and above treeline) and canopy light (sun vs. shade leaves) gradients. Nutrient concentrations (mass basis) did not show any significant (all P>0.05) differences among elevations, although mean concentrations of all macronutrients (N, P, K, Ca, Mg) tended to be higher at low elevation sites compared to high elevation. This result contradicts the traditional view that plants in cold growth environments are adapted to maintain high foliar nutrient concentrations, but it also gives only weak support for the hypothesis that nutrient limitation plays a role in determining treeline location. Foliar concentrations (mass basis) of lignin (both sun and shade needles) and cellulose (sun needles only) decreased sharply and significantly with increasing elevation, but foliar concentrations of hemicellulose did not change with elevation. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that as a result of carbon limitation at high elevation, synthesis of the most expensive fiber constituent (i.e. lignin) is reduced more than that of the least expensive fiber constituent (i.e. hemicellulose). The reduced lignin concentration at high elevation may have implications for nutrient cycling in this ecosystem where cold temperatures limit decomposition rates.