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Late spring frost events can affect vegetation. The response of grassland species, however, is generally unknown. We explore the late-frost sensitivity of four common European grass species and investigate whether these species exhibit local adaptations to late frost on a continental scale and whether past climatic experience influences late frost sensitivity.

Ecotypes of Arrhenatherum elatius, Alopecurus pratensis, Festuca pratensis, and Holcus lanatus from Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Sweden and Germany were exposed to late frost after drought and warming manipulations in the preceding growing season in a common garden experiment.

Late frost reduced the productivity of the grasses on average by 20%. Ecotypes differed in their late-frost sensitivity in three of the four species and local adaptations to late frost were identified. Previous exposure to drought and warming caused differences in late-frost sensitivity in some cases.

The impact of late frost events may increase in a warmer world due to an earlier onset of growing and no change in timing of late frost events. The history of climatic exposure can alter the performance of plants, possibly through epigenetic mechanisms. Based on the complex response pattern observed, a maximization of genetic diversity is proposed as a promising adaptation strategy against climate change.