• branch order;
  • ephemeral roots;
  • fine roots;
  • Fraxinus mandshurica;
  • nitrogen concentrations;
  • plant modules;
  • respiration;
  • root turnover


  • Historically, ephemeral roots have been equated with ‘fine roots’ (i.e. all roots of less than an arbitrary diameter, such as 2 mm), but evidence shows that ‘fine roots’ in woody species are complex branching systems with both rapid-cycling and slow-cycling components. A precise definition of ephemeral roots is therefore needed.
  • Using a branch-order classification, a rhizotron method and sequential sampling of a root cohort, we tested the hypothesis that ephemeral root modules exist within the branching Fraxinus mandshurica (Manchurian ash) root system as distal nonwoody lateral branches, which show anatomical, nutritional and physiological patterns distinct from their woody mother roots.
  • Our results showed that in F. mandshurica, distal nonwoody root branch orders die rapidly as intact lateral branches (or modules). These nonwoody branch orders exhibited highly synchronous changes in tissue nitrogen concentrations and respiration, dominated root turnover, nutrient flux and root respiration, and never underwent secondary development.
  • The ephemeral root modules proposed here may provide a functional basis for differentiating and sampling short-lived absorptive roots in woody plants, and represent a conceptual leap over the traditional coarse–fine root dichotomies based on arbitrary size classes.