Relationships among root branch order, carbon, and nitrogen in four temperate species

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


The objective of this study was to examine how root length, diameter, specific root length, and root carbon and nitrogen concentrations were related to root branching patterns. The branching root systems of two temperate tree species, Acer saccharum Marsh. and Fraxinus americana L., and two perennial herbs from horizontal rhizomes, Hydrophyllum canadense L. and Viola pubescens Ait., were quantified by dissecting entire root systems collected from the understory of an A. saccharum-Fagus grandifolia Ehrh. forest. The root systems of each species grew according to a simple branching process, with laterals emerging from the main roots some distance behind the tip. Root systems normally consisted of only 4-6 branches (orders). Root diameter, length, and number of branches declined with increasing order and there were significant differences among species. Specific root length increased with order in all species. Nitrogen concentration increased with order in the trees, but remained constant in the perennial herbs. More than 75% of the cumulative root length of tree seedling root systems was accounted for by short (210 mm) lateral roots almost always < 0.3 mm in diameter. Simple assumptions suggest that many tree roots normally considered part of the dynamic fine-root pool (e.g., all roots < 2.0 mm in diameter) are too large toexhibit rapid rates of production and mortality. The smallest tree roots may be the least expensive to construct but the most expensive to maintain based on an increase in N concentration with order.

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