Are vascular epiphytes nitrogen or phosphorus limited? A study of plant 15N fractionation and foliar N : P stoichiometry with the tank bromeliad Vriesea sanguinolenta


  • Wolfgang Wanek,

    1. Department of Chemical Ecology and Ecosystem Research, University of Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, A-1090 Vienna, Austria
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  • Gerhard Zotz

    1. Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Carl-von-Ossietzky-Straße 9–11, D-26111 Oldenburg, Germany
    2. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado Postal 0843-03092, Balboa, Ancon, Panama
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Author for correspondence:
Wolfgang Wanek
Tel: +43 1 4277 54254


  • Although there is unambiguous evidence for vascular epiphytic plants to be limited by insufficient water and nutrient supply under natural conditions, it is an open debate whether they are primarily phosphorus (P) or nitrogen (N) limited.
  • Plant 15N fractionation and foliar N : P stoichiometry of a tank epiphyte (Vriesea sanguinolenta), and its response to combined N–P fertilization, were studied under semi-natural conditions over 334 d to clarify the type of nutrient limitation.
  • Plants collected in the field and experimental plants with limited nutrient supply showed significant plant 15N fractionation (mean 5‰) and plant N : P ratios of c. 13.5. Higher relative growth rates and declines in plant 15N fractionation (0.5‰) and in foliar N : P ratios to 8.5 in the high N–P treatment indicated that these epiphytes were P limited in situ. The critical foliar N : P ratio was 10.4, as derived from the breakpoint in the relationship between plant 15N fractionation and foliar N : P.
  • We interpret the widespread 15N depletion of vascular epiphytes relative to their host trees as deriving from 15N fractionation of epiphytes as a result of P limitation. High foliar N : P ratios (> 12) corroborate widespread P limitation (or co-limitation by N and P) of epiphytic bromeliads and, possibly, other epiphyte species.