Aim We analyse the proximate causes of the large variation in flowering periodicity among four tropical dry forests (TDF) and ask whether climatic periodicity or biotic interactions are the ultimate causes of flowering periodicity.
Location The four TDFs in Guanacaste (Costa Rica), Yucatan, Jalisco and Sonora (Mexico) are characterized by a 5–7 month long dry season and are located along a gradient of increasing latitude (10–30°N).
Methods To dissect the differences in flowering periodicity observed at the community level, individual tree species were assigned to ‘flowering types’, i.e. groups of species with characteristic flowering periods determined by similar combinations of environmental flowering cues and vegetative phenology.
Results Large variation in the fraction of species and flowering types blooming during the dry and wet season, respectively, indicates large differences in the severity of seasonal drought among the four forests. In the dry upland forests of Jalisco, flowering of leafless trees remains suppressed during severe seasonal drought and is triggered by the first rains of the wet season. In the other forests, leaf shedding, exceptional rainfall or increasing daylength cause flowering of many deciduous species at various times during the dry season, well before the summer rains. The fraction of deciduous species leafing out during the summer rains and flowering when leafless during the dry season is largest in the Sonoran TDF.
Main conclusions In many wide-ranging species the phenotypic plasticity of flowering periodicity is large. The distinct temporal separation of spring flowering on leafless shoots and subsequent summer flushing represents a unique adaptation of tree development to climates with a relatively short rainy season and a long dry season. Seasonal variation in rainfall and soil water availability apparently constitutes not only the proximate, but also the ultimate cause of flowering periodicity, which is unlikely to have evolved in response to biotic adaptive pressures.