1 Species-pairs from woody dicot lineages were chosen as phylogenetically independent contrasts (PICs) to represent evolutionary divergences along gradients of rainfall and nutrient stress, and within particular habitat types, in New South Wales, Australia. Seedlings were grown under controlled, favourable conditions and measurements were made for various growth, morphological and allocation traits.
2 Trait correlations across all species were identified, particularly with respect to seedling relative growth rate (RGR) and specific leaf area (SLA), a fundamental measure of allocation strategy that reflects the light-capture area deployed per unit of photosynthate invested in leaves.
3 Across all species, SLA, specific root length (SRL) and seed reserve mass were the strongest predictors of seedling RGR. That is, a syndrome of leaf and root surface maximization and low seed mass was typical of high RGR plants. This may be a high-risk strategy for individual seedlings, but one presumably mitigated by a larger number of seedlings being produced, increasing the chance that at least one will find itself in a favourable situation.
4 Syndromes of repeated attribute divergence were identified in the two sets of gradient PICs. Species from lower resource habitats generally had lower SLA. Thus, in this important respect the two gradients appeared to be variants of a more general ‘stress’ gradient.
5 However, trends in biomass allocation, tissue density, root morphology and seed reserve mass differed between gradients. While SLA and RGR tended to shift together along gradients and in within-habitat PICs, no single attribute emerged as the common, primary factor driving RGR divergences within contrasts. Within-habitat attribute shifts were of similar magnitude to those along gradients.