Leaf phenology in relation to canopy closure in southern Appalachian trees

Omar R. Lopez, Krista Farris-Lopez, Rebecca A. Montgomery, Thomas J. Givnish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Leaf phenology varies markedly across tree species of temperate deciduous forests. Early leafing in spring may increase light capture and carbon gain prior to canopy closure, allowing saplings to survive in understory sites deeply shaded in midsummer. We quantified sapling leaf phenology for 18 tree species and seasonal variation in understory light availability at three sites along a ridge-slope-cove landform gradient in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Early leafing species (e.g., Aesculus flava, Carpinus caroliniana ) broke bud an average of 24 d before late leafers (e.g., Magnolia fraseri, Nyssa sylvatica ). Canopy closure occurred 14-18 d earlier and summer understory light was on average 63-74% lower on intermediate and mesic sites than on the xeric site. Early leafing species intercepted 45-80% of their growing season photon flux before canopy closure vs. 8-15% for late leafers. However, earlier leafing increased exposure to freezing temperatures by 5.5% per week near the mean time of bud break. Early leafing is strongly correlated with midsummer shade, risk of freezing temperatures, and distribution on mesic sites across a "main spectrum" of 15 deciduous species. Differences in leaf phenology and resultant impacts on spring carbon gain may help determine tree shade tolerance and distribution in southern Appalachian forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1395-1407
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican journal of botany
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2008


  • Bud break
  • Canopy closure
  • Early leafing
  • Environmental gradient
  • Freezing
  • Leaf flush
  • Light gains
  • Photon flux density
  • Shade tolerance


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