Individual traits are often assumed to be linked in a straightforward manner to plant performance and processes such as population growth, competition and community dynamics. However, because no trait functions in isolation in an organism, the effect of any one trait is likely to be at least somewhat contingent on other trait values. Thus, to the extent that the suite of trait values differs among species, the magnitude and even direction of correlation between values of any particular trait and performance is likely to differ among species. Working with a group of clonal plant species, we assessed the degree of this contingency and therefore the extent to which the assumption of simple and general linkages between traits and performance is valid. To do this, we parameterized a highly calibrated, spatially explicit, individual-based model of clonal plant population dynamics and then manipulated one trait at a time in the context of realistic values of other traits for each species. The model includes traits describing growth, resource allocation, response to competition, as well as architectural traits that determine spatial spread. The model was parameterized from a short-term (3 month) experiment and then validated with a separate, longer term (two year) experiment for six clonal wetland sedges, Carex lasiocarpa, Carex sterilis, Carex stricta, Cladium mariscoides, Scirpus acutus and Scirpus americanus. These plants all co-occur in fens in southeastern Michigan and represent a spectrum of clonal growth forms from strong clumpers to runners with long rhizomes.
Varying growth, allocation and competition traits produced the largest and most uniform responses in population growth among species, while variation in architectural traits produced responses that were smaller and more variable among species. This is likely due to the fact that growth and competition traits directly affect mean ramet size and number of ramets, which are direct components of population biomass. In contrast, architectural and allocation traits determine spatial distribution of biomass; in the long run, this also affects population size, but its net effect is more likely to be mediated by other traits. Such differences in how traits affect plant performance are likely to have implications for interspecific interactions and community structure, as well as on the interpretation and usefulness of single trait optimality models.