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Approximately 35–55% of total nitrogen (N) in maize plants is taken up by the root at the reproductive stage. Little is known about how the root of an adult plant responds to heterogeneous nutrient supply. In this study, root morphological and physiological adaptations to nitrate-rich and nitrate-poor patches and corresponding gene expression of ZmNrt2.1 and ZmNrt2.2 of maize seedlings and adult plants were characterized. Local high nitrate (LoHN) supply increased both lateral root length (LRL) and density of the treated nodal roots of adult maize plants, but only increased LRL of the treated primary roots of seedlings. LoHN also increased plant total N acquisition but not N influx rate of the treated roots, when expressed as per unit of root length. Furthermore, LoHN markedly increased specific root length (m g−1) of the treated roots but significantly inhibited the growth of the lateral roots outside of the nitrate-rich patches, suggesting a systemic carbon saving strategy within a whole root system. Surprisingly, local low nitrate (LoLN) supply stimulated nodal root growth of adult plants although LoLN inhibited growth of primary roots of seedlings. LoLN inhibited the N influx rate of the treated roots and did not change plant total N content. The gene expression of ZmNrt2.1 and ZmNrt2.2 of the treated roots of seedlings and adult plants was inhibited by LoHN but enhanced by LoLN. In conclusion, maize adult roots responded to nitrate-rich and nitrate-poor patches by adaptive morphological alterations and displayed carbon saving strategies in response to heterogeneous nitrate supply.