Different photosynthesis-nitrogen relations in deciduous hardwood and evergreen coniferous tree species

P. B. Reich, M. B. Walters, B. D. Kloeppel, D. S. Ellsworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

393 Scopus citations


The relationship between photosynthetic capacity (Amax) and leaf nitrogen concentration (N) among all C3 species can be described roughly with one general equation, yet within that overall pattern species groups or individual species may have markedly different Amax-N relationships. To determine whether one or several predictive, fundamental Amax-N relationships exist for temperate trees we measured Amax, specific leaf area (SLA) and N in 22 broad-leaved deciduous and 9 needle-leaved evergreen tree species in Wisconsin, United States. For broad-leaved deciduous trees, mass-based Amax was highly correlated with leaf N (r2=0.75, P<0.001). For evergreen conifers, mass-based Amax was also correlated with leaf N (r2=0.59, P<0.001) and the slope of the regression (rate of increase of Amax per unit increase in N) was lower (P<0.001) by two-thirds than in the broad-leaved species (1.9 vs. 6.4 μmol CO2 g-1 N s-1), consistent with predictions based on tropical rain forest trees of short vs. long leaf life-span. On an area basis, there was a strong Amax-N correlation among deciduous species (r2=0.78, P<0.001) and no correlation (r2=0.03, P>0.25) in the evergreen conifers. Compared to deciduous trees at a common leaf N (mass or area basis), evergreen trees had lower Amax and SLA. For all data pooled, both leaf N and Amax on a mass basis were correlated (r2=0.6) with SLA; in contrast, area-based leaf N scaled tightly with SLA (r2=0.81), but area-based Amax did not (r2=0.06) because of low Amax per unit N in the evergreen conifers. Multiple regression analysis of all data pooled showed that both N (mass or area basis) and SLA were significantly (P<0.001) related to Amax on mass (r2=0.80) and area (r2=0.55) bases, respectively. These results provide further evidence that Amax-N relationships are fundamentally different for ecologically distinct species groups with differing suites of foliage characteristics: species with long leaf life-spans and low SLA, whether broad-leaved or needle-leaved, tend to have lower Amax per unit leaf N and a lower slope and higher intercept of the Amax-N relation than do species with shorter leaf life-span and higher SLA. A single global Amax-N equation overestimates and underestimates Amax for temperate trees at the upper and lower end of their leaf N range, respectively. Users of Amax-N relationships in modeling photosynthesis in different ecosystems should appreciate the strengths and limitations of regression equations based on different species groupings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)24-30
Number of pages7
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 1995


  • Deciduous
  • Evergreen
  • Leaf life-span
  • Nitrogen
  • Photosynthesis


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