Mast-seeding is the synchronous and periodic reproduction by plant populations. This phenomenon has been widely studied from a community-level perspective, but we know extremely little about how plants are able to synchronize reproduction. Here, we present the first experimental test of proximate mechanisms of mast-seeding, by preventing reproduction in an iteroparous, mast-seeding wildflower. Through a series of experiments, we show that mobile carbohydrate stores (NSC) control alternate-year flowering by individual plants; seed set depletes NSC which prevents flowering the following year. Plants are synchronized by density-dependent pollen limitation; when plants flower asynchronously, they set fewer seeds, which prevents NSC depletion. Therefore, these individual plants flower in subsequent years and become synchronized. Because mast-seeding is a consequence of physiological controls of reproduction, differences in plant resource acquisition and allocation could dramatically change patterns of seed production, and changes in plant consumers and pollinators could change selection on physiological and developmental pathways.
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