Root tissue structure is linked to ecological strategies of grasses

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Abstract

The present study investigated to what extent there is a link between root tissue structure and ecological strategies of plant species; such a link is known for leaf tissue structure. We investigated experimentally root tissue mass density, root diameter and several characteristics of root anatomy in the axile roots of 19 perennial grass species from different habitats and related these parameters to the ecological behaviour of the species. Root characteristics were assessed in new roots produced by mature plants grown under standardized conditions. The ecological behaviour was characterized in terms of relative growth rate (RGR), plant height at maturity and ecological indicator values for nutrients, light and tolerance to mowing according to Ellenberg. We found a striking dichotomy between root anatomical characteristics associated with interspecific variation in RGR and those associated with variation in plant height. RGR correlated with anatomical characteristics that contribute to root robustness, whereas plant height correlated with characteristics associated with axile root hydraulic conductance. RGR correlated negatively with tissue mass density (TMDr) in roots. Interspecific variation in TMDr was explained by the proportion of stele in the cross-sectional area (CSA) of the axile root and the proportion of cell wall in the CSA of the stele. For a given root diameter, slow growing species had smaller, albeit more numerous, xylem vessels, indicating a higher resistance to cavitation and protection against embolisms. Plant height correlated positively with root CSA, total xylem CSA and mean xylem vessel CSA, indicating a need for a high transport capacity in roots of species that attain a large size at maturity. TMDr correlated positively with dry matter content in leaves. The results emphasize the close relationship between tissue structure and growth characteristics at the whole-plant level.

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