1. Broad-scale patterns of above-ground net primary production (ANPP) are closely coupled to climate features, particularly the distribution and magnitude of rainfall. In arid and semi-arid regions, however, the precipitation regime, together with local geomorphology and plant life history traits, combine to regulate soil water availability and patterns of growth, complicating simple correlations with climatic variables.
2. To better understand the drivers of plant growth in desert ecosystems, we characterized the rates and spatial heterogeneity of stem elongation by the dominant perennial shrub, creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in the northern Sonoran Desert of Arizona (USA). Estimates of stem growth were made over a 5-year period (2006–2010) from 60 plots at 15 sites spanning c. 120 km across the Central Arizona–Phoenix (CAP) Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) area.
3. We observed both the highest and lowest rates of stem growth during summer, and these patterns were related to the amount of monsoon rainfall and local rates of water infiltration. The relationship between growth and precipitation in the summer was nonlinear, with rates increasing more than eightfold at plots receiving more than 100 mm of seasonal rainfall. Conversely, growth during the winter/spring was intermediate in magnitude, similar among years and poorly correlated with seasonal precipitation.
4. The spatial heterogeneity of stem growth also differed markedly between seasons and was greater both within and among sites during summer compared to winter/spring growing periods. At broad scales, spatial heterogeneity of shrub growth was correlated with seasonal changes in the spatial variability of rainfall across the study area. At small spatial scales, greater heterogeneity during the summer appears linked to local soil properties that influence infiltration and water availability following monsoon storms.
5. Overall, the strong, nonlinear growth response by L. tridentata to monsoon rainfall suggests that the recurrence interval of wet summer seasons is an important driver of ANPP for this long-lived shrub. More generally, our results illustrate how regional climate variability and local soil properties can interact to influence the rates and heterogeneity of desert plant growth at multiple scales.