• bryophytes;
  • competition;
  • N deposition;
  • nitrogen use efficiency;
  • peatland;
  • photosynthesis;
  • stoichiometry


1. Bogs are nutrient-poor peatland ecosystems that are sensitive to nitrogen (N) deposition. Production of peat mosses (i.e. the peat-forming genus Sphagnum) is known to decrease under elevated N deposition, but the causal mechanisms are poorly understood.

2. It is predicted that increased N deposition will cause changes in Sphagnum species composition, with fast-growing species benefiting from increased N availability in contrast to slow-growing species. Knowledge of species-specific responses to N availability can help us to understand interspecific competitive relationships.

3. We investigated the direct effects of N application on plant physiology in three Sphagnum species by exposing shoots to a range of N doses (corresponding to depositions of 0–5·6 g m−2 year−1), over 5 months, in a greenhouse experiment. The species investigated included one that grows high above the water-table (Sphagnum fuscum) and two that grow lower down (Sphagnum balticum and Sphagnum fallax). S. fuscum and S. balticum originate from ombrotrophic and S. fallax from minerotrophic environments. To estimate N responses, we measured the performance and light-capture kinetics of the photosynthetic apparatus (maximum photosynthetic rate and Fv/Fm), biomass production, shoot formation, and N and phosphorus (P) concentrations in the tissue.

4. Tissue nitrogen concentration generally increased with N application rate, and photosynthetic rate increased with N concentration, although S. balticum exhibited a unimodal response. With respect to production, a negative response to N application rate was found in S. fallax and S. fuscum (weak), while production in S. balticum was unrelated to application rate. S. fallax was the fastest-growing species, producing two to three times more biomass per shoot compared with the other species.

5. The mismatch between photosynthetic capacity and production could partly be explained by an increased N : P ratio following N application. Phosphorus limitation may not negatively affect photosynthetic capacity, but may hamper production.

6. The fast-growing species S. fallax is considered to benefit from increased N deposition, but we found a negative physiological response, suggesting stoichiometric constraints. Thus, we conclude that responses to N deposition cannot be predicted in a simple way from physiological traits related to growth rate without considering local environmental factors.