• Carex bigelowii (stiff sedge);
  • rhizome;
  • nitrogen uptake;
  • clonal integration;
  • arctic

Studies on the rhizomatous clonal sedge Carex bigelowii, at a fellfield site in subarctic Swedish Lapland examined the ecological potential of rhizomes as nitrogen uptake systems. Direct application of a solution of 15NH415NO3 to the rhizomes of C. bigelowii significantly enriched the 15N content of the plant tissue. The pattern of enrichment indicated movement of labelled nitrogen into rhizomes and adjoining tissue (including roots and shoots), showing both uptake and translocation via the rhizome system. There was a gradient of decreasing 15N enrichment with increasing distance from the point of labelling, and estimation of the total mass of nitrogen taken up via labelled rhizomes showed low levels and rates of uptake. Quantification of the size of rhizome and root systems of C. bigelowii at the study site indicates that 80% of the living biomass may be below ground, and that the surface area of the rhizome system of C. bigelowii is approx. two-thirds that of the roots. The rhizome system of C. bigelowii can therefore act as a route for nitrogen uptake, with the potential to exploit almost as great a volume of soil as the root system. This mechanism of nitrogen uptake may play an important role in the Arctic, where many species have a clonal, rhizomatous growth form. In addition, plant growth in many arctic ecosystems is limited by low soil nutrient availability, a result of low temperatures (leading to slow soil decomposition rates) and patchy resource distribution. Nitrogen uptake via rhizomes may provide plants with the capacity to take advantage of transient nutrient supplies, and may partly compensate for the cost of developing and maintaining persistent rhizome networks in ecosystems where nutrient resources are in short supply.