European deciduous trees exhibit similar safety margins against damage by spring freeze events along elevational gradients



  • Minimum temperature is assumed to be an important driver of tree species range limits. We investigated during which period of the year trees are most vulnerable to freezing damage and whether the pressure of freezing events increases with increasing elevation.
  • We assessed the course of freezing resistance of buds and leaves from winter to summer at the upper elevational limits of eight deciduous tree species in the Swiss Alps. By reconstructing the spring phenology of these species over the last eight decades using a thermal time model, we linked freezing resistance with long-term minimum temperature data along elevational gradients.
  • Counter-intuitively, the pressure of freeze events does not increase with elevation, but deciduous temperate tree species exhibit a constant safety margin (5–8.5 K) against damage by spring freeze events along elevational gradients, as a result of the later flushing at higher elevation. Absolute minimum temperatures in winter and summer are unlikely to critically injure trees.
  • Our study shows that freezing temperatures in spring are the main selective pressure controlling the timing of flushing, leading to a shorter growing season at higher elevation and potentially driving species distribution limits. Such mechanistic knowledge is important to improve predictions of tree species range limits.