1. There are conflicting reports concerning the adaptive features of tree populations originating from cold, high-altitude environments. We hypothesize that such trees will possess adaptive features that will be demonstrated in a common environment, such as elevated rates of net CO2 exchange, elevated needle nitrogen concentration and high proportional biomass allocation to roots. To test this hypothesis we measured tree and seed properties of 54 populations of Norway spruce [Picea abies (L.) Karst.] located along eight altitudinal transects (from c.600 to 1500m) in southern Poland. We also measured growth, biomass partitioning, net photosynthetic capacity (Amax), needle dark respiration (RS) and carbohydrate, nitrogen (N) and chlorophyll concentration of seedlings originating from these populations grown for 2 to 7 years in a common garden at 150m elevation. Measured in situ along the elevational transects, there were linear declines in seed mass, average d.b.h. and height growth increment of seed trees with increased altitude or lower mean annual temperature.
2. In the common garden, the Norway spruce populations from colder, high-altitude habitats had higher N concentration in needles than those from low altitudes. Both Amax and needle RS increased with altitude of seed origin and were significantly related to needle N concentration. High-altitude populations also had higher concentrations of chlorophyll and carotene than those from low elevations. Despite higher photosynthetic rates in high-altitude populations, seedling height and dry mass in the common garden declined with altitude of seed origin. Proportional dry mass partitioning to roots nearly doubled with increasing altitude of origin, while the length of the shoot-growth period was reduced. The high respiration rates, high allocation to roots and reduced shoot-growth period are probably responsible for the low growth rate potential of high-altitude populations, more than offsetting their higher photosynthetic rates.
3. The results of this study showed that Norway spruce populations from cold mountain environments are characterized by several potentially adaptive features. Because these were similar to conifer population responses along a latitudinal gradient of origin, they are probably driven by climate. These climate-driven differences were common to all transects: for a given altitude or mean annual temperature, plant traits were independent of mountain range of origin. However, populations originating from cold high-elevation sites often differed per unit change in altitude or mean annual temperature more than did low elevation populations. The scaling of nitrogen, CO2 exchange and biomass and allocation patterns may be useful in modelling Norway spruce response on montane forest ecosystems under changing environments.