Comparisons of structure and life span in roots and leaves among temperate trees

Jennifer M. Withington, Peter B. Reich, Jacek Oleksyn, David M. Eissenstat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

397 Scopus citations


Global data sets provide strong evidence of convergence for leaf structure with leaf longevity such that species having thick leaves, low specific leaf area, low mass-based nitrogen concentrations, and low photosynthetic rates typically exhibit long leaf life span. Leaf longevity and corresponding leaf structure have also been widely linked to plant potential growth rate, plant competition, and nutrient cycling. We hypothesized that selection forces leading to variation in leaf longevity and leaf structure have acted simultaneously and in similar directions on the longevity and structure of the finest root orders. Our four-year study investigated the links between root and leaf life span and root and leaf structure among 11 north-temperate tree species in a common garden in central Poland. Study species included the hardwoods Acer pseudoplatanus L., Acer platanoides L., Fagus sylvatica L., Quercus robur L., and Tilia cordata Mill.; and the conifers Abies alba Mill., Larix decidua Mill., Picea abies (L.) Karst., Pinus nigra Arnold, Pinus sylvestris L., and Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirbel) Franco. Leaf life span, estimated by phenological observations and needle cohort measurements, ranged from 0.5 to 8 yr among species. Median fine-root life span, estimated using minirhizotron images of individual roots, ranged from 0.5 to 2.5 yr among species. Root life span was not correlated with leaf life span, but specific root length was significantly correlated with specific leaf area. Root nitrogen : carbon ratio was negatively correlated with root longevity, which corroborates previous research that has suggested a trade-off between organ life span and higher organ N concentrations. Specific traits such as thickened outer tangential walls of the exodermis were better predictors of long-lived roots than tissue density or specific root length, which have been correlated with life span in previous studies. Although theories linking organ structure and function suggest that similar root and leaf traits should be linked to life span and that root and leaf life span should be positively correlated, our results suggest that tissue structure and longevity aboveground (leaves) can contrast markedly with that belowground (roots).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)381-397
Number of pages17
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2006


  • Conifers
  • Fine roots
  • Hardwoods
  • Leaf life span
  • Minirhizotron
  • Root life span
  • Suites of traits
  • Trait syndromes


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