Responses of a C4 grass and three C3 forbs to variation in nitrogen and light in tallgrass prairie

TitleResponses of a C4 grass and three C3 forbs to variation in nitrogen and light in tallgrass prairie
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1996
AuthorsTurner, CT, Knapp, AK
Pagination1738 -1749
Accession NumberKNZ00574
Keywordstallgrass prairie

In tallgrass prairie, high plant species diversity results not from a large number of grass species, but from a large number of forb (nongrass, herbaceous) species. Forbs exhibit morphological, life history, and ecophysiological characteristics that contrast sharply with those of the dominant C4 grasses. Success of the subdominant forbs varies strongly with topographic position and burning regime, and landscape scale patterns of abundance are well documented. But comparatively little is known about the mechanisms determining these patterns in persistent tallgrass prairie forbs. To elucidate these mechanisms, (1) leaf—level physiological characteristics of the dominant C4 grass, Andropogon gerardii, and four co—occurring C3 forbs were measured in response to natural and experimentally manipulated gradients of N availability, and (2) seasonal light environments of forbs in contrasting topographic positions and burning regimes and their morphological and physiological responses in these environments were compared to determine whether resource availability and utilization patterns contributed to patterns of forb distribution and abundance. The effects of burning regime and topographic position on maximum rate of photosynthesis (A) and stomatal conductance to water vapor (g) measured at the leaf level were not consistent with patterns of forb abundance. Nitrogen did not appear to limit forb physiological processes, even though increased N availability resulted in higher tissue N concentrations and greater biomass. There was no consistent increase in (A) or decrease in (g) in response to fertilization. However, (A) at low light levels was as much as 67% higher in fertilized Vernonia baldwinii and A. gerardii compared to unfertilized plants. Greater light availability to forbs in the canopy was associated with lower grass biomass production in uplands compared to lowlands and in unburned compared to burned sites. Forbs did not appear to adjust morphologically (leaf area and plant height) to different light environments at different sites. As a result, as much as 90% of forb leaf area in the burned lowland was displayed in low light, whereas as little as 30% of forb leaf area was in low light in the uplands at midseason. Estimates of potential whole—plant carbon uptake, based on leaf area distribution relative to available light and (A) as a function of light availability, agreed well with patterns of forb abundance and production. Differences in light availability may account for much of the variability in forb abundance related to burning regime and topographic position by limiting carbon gain in forbs more in burned lowlands than in other sites.