1. To test several hypotheses about acclimation and adaptation of photosynthesis and respiration to differing light conditions, we investigated the interspecific relationships between leaf and root metabolism, chemistry and morphology in high and low light conditions for young seedlings of nine boreal tree species that differ in relative growth rate (RGR).
2. Light-saturated net photosynthesis (Asat), whole-plant nitrogen (N) uptake rates, leaf and root respiration and morphology, and RGR all varied in parallel among the nine species when grown in both 5% and 25% of full sunlight. RGR, Asat, leaf and root respiration (Rd), and N uptake rate per unit root mass or length differed significantly among species, ranking (from high to low): Populus, Betula and Larix spp. (all deciduous) and then to five evergreen conifers (Pinus, Picea and Thuja spp.), which were generally comparable in these measures.
3.Asat, leaf and root Rd and N uptake rates were all correlated (r≈ 0·8 to 0·9) with species traits, such as seed mass, leaf life span and shade-tolerance rankings. Mass-based Asat was greater in conifer seedlings raised in low than high light. In contrast, area-based Asat was higher for plants grown in high than low light, especially in the deciduous species. Once adjusted for differences in plant mass, leaf or root respiration rates did not differ for plants grown in low vs high light.
4. Interspecific variation in RGR was positively correlated (r≈ 0·9) with rates of photosynthesis, respiration and N uptake. Leaf photosynthesis and respiration rates were correlated to specific leaf area and leaf N concentrations (r≈ 0·9). Root respiration rates, N uptake rates, specific root length (root length per root dry mass) and root N concentrations were all highly correlated with each other (r≈ 0·8 to 0·9). These data suggest a close coupling of tissue-level metabolism, chemistry and structure with whole-plant performance and species ecophysiological and life-history traits.