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Keywords:

  • Deciduousness;
  • dipterocarp–oak forest;
  • photoperiodic control;
  • spring-flushing;
  • tropical dry forests;
  • tropical tree phenology

ABSTRACT

Aim  Most deciduous species of dry monsoon forests in Thailand and India form new leaves 1–2 months before the first monsoon rains, during the hottest and driest part of the year around the spring equinox. Here we identify the proximate causes of this characteristic and counterintuitive ‘spring-flushing’ of monsoon forest trees.

Location  Trees of 20 species were observed in semi-deciduous dry monsoon forests of northern Thailand with a 5–6-month-long severe dry season and annual rainfall of 800–1500 mm. They were growing on dry ridges (dipterocarp–oak forest) or in moist gullies (mixed deciduous–evergreen forest) at 680–750 m altitude near Chiang Mai and in a dry lowland stand of Shorea siamensis in Uthai Thani province.

Methods  Two novel methods were developed to analyse temporal and spatial variation in vegetative dry-season phenology indicative of differences in root access to subsoil water reserves.

Results  Evergreen and leaf exchanging species at cool, moist sites leafed soon after partial leaf shedding in January–February. Drought-resistant dipterocarp species were evergreen at moist sites, deciduous at dry sites, and trees leafed soon after leaf shedding whenever subsoil water was available. Synchronous spring flushing of deciduous species around the spring equinox, as induced by increasing daylength, was common in Thailand's dipterocarp–oak forest and appears to be prevalent in Indian dry monsoon forests of the Deccan peninsula with its deep, water-storing soils.

Main conclusions  In all observed species leafing during the dry season relied on subsoil water reserves, which buffer trees against prolonged climatic drought. Implicitly, rainfall periodicity, i.e. climate, is not the principal determinant of vegetative tree phenology. The establishment of new foliage before the summer rains is likely to optimize photosynthetic gain in dry monsoon forests with a relatively short, wet growing season.