Local adaptation and plasticity pose significant obstacles to predicting plant responses to future climates. Although local adaptation and plasticity in plant functional traits have been documented for many species, less is known about population-level variation in plasticity and whether such variation is driven by adaptation to environmental variation. We examined clinal variation in traits and performance – and plastic responses to environmental change – for the shrub Artemisia californica along a 700 km gradient characterized (from south to north) by a fourfold increase in precipitation and a 61% decrease in interannual precipitation variation. Plants cloned from five populations along this gradient were grown for 3 years in treatments approximating the precipitation regimes of the north and south range margins. Most traits varying among populations did so clinally; northern populations (vs. southern) had higher water-use efficiencies and lower growth rates, C : N ratios and terpene concentrations. Notably, there was variation in plasticity for plant performance that was strongly correlated with source site interannual precipitation variability. The high-precipitation treatment (vs. low) increased growth and flower production more for plants from southern populations (181% and 279%, respectively) than northern populations (47% and 20%, respectively). Overall, precipitation variability at population source sites predicted 86% and 99% of variation in plasticity in growth and flowering, respectively. These striking, clinal patterns in plant traits and plasticity are indicative of adaptation to both the mean and variability of environmental conditions. Furthermore, our analysis of long-term coastal climate data in turn indicates an increase in interannual precipitation variation consistent with most global change models and, unexpectedly, this increased variation is especially pronounced at historically stable, northern sites. Our findings demonstrate the critical need to integrate fundamental evolutionary processes into global change models, as contemporary patterns of adaptation to environmental clines will mediate future plant responses to projected climate change.
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