This study measured water-use efficiency of wildland vegetation at the whole-plant level during two contrasting years to better understand ecosystem responses to precipitation fluctuations in the Great Basin, USA. Biome-representative species included grasses (Distichlis spicata, Leymus triticoides, and Sporobolus airoides), desert shrubs (Artemisia tridentata, Atriplex confertifolia, and Ericameria nauseosa), wetland/riparian plants (Glycyrrhiza lepidota, Juncus arcticus, and Salix exigua), and an exotic annual (Salsola tragus). Plants were grown in 5·8 m2 plots in a common garden in eastern California. Four watering treatments were applied monthly during two summers: control (no water other than natural precipitation), low (1·3 cm), medium (2·6 cm), and high (3·9 cm). Water-use efficiency, here termed water to production (WTPa), was the ratio of water transpired to aboveground biomass produced. Biomass production was 50% lower and WTPa was five times higher during 2009 than 2010. WTPa decreased with watering during 2009 but increased with watering during 2010. Year differences determined vegetation productivity and response to summer watering and were related to the lower winter/spring precipitation during 2009 than 2010. Desert shrubs were more drought tolerant than grasses and wetland plants. Yet, an increase in summer precipitation would primarily benefit herbaceous species and not desert shrubs. Desert shrubs achieved greater standing crop but lower root-to-shoot ratio (RSR) than herbaceous species. Nonetheless, the grass S. airoides had the greatest standing crop overall, mainly because of its greater root production (RSR 5·5). Species differences in growth, WTPa, and biomass allocation should be considered in land management and conservation practices. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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