Article in New Phytologist – Determinants of legacy effects in pines

Tree responses to altered water availability range from immediate (e.g. stomatal regulation) to delayed (e.g. crown size adjustment). The interplay of the different response times and processes, and their effects on long-term whole-tree performance, however, is hardly understood. Here we investigated legacy effects on structures and functions of mature Scots pine in a dry inner-Alpine Swiss valley after stopping an 11-yr lasting irrigation treatment. Measured ecophysiological time series were analysed and interpreted with a system-analytic tree model. We found that the irrigation stop led to a cascade of downregulations of physiological and morphological processes with different response times. Biophysical processes responded within days, whereas needle and shoot lengths, crown transparency, and radial stem growth reached control levels after up to 4 yr only. Modelling suggested that organ and carbon reserve turnover rates play a key role for a tree’s responsiveness to environmental changes. Needle turnover rate was found to be most important to accurately model stem growth dynamics. We conclude that leaf area and its adjustment time to new conditions is the main determinant for radial stem growth of pine trees as the transpiring area needs to be supported by a proportional amount of sapwood, despite the growth-inhibiting environmental conditions.

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