Vertical leaf mass per area gradient of mature sugar maple reflects both height-driven increases in vascular tissue and light-driven increases in palisade layer thickness

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


A key trait used in canopy and ecosystem function modeling, leaf mass per area (LMA), is influenced by changes in both leaf thickness and leaf density (LMA = Thickness × Density). In tall trees, LMA is understood to increase with height through two primary mechanisms: (i) increasing palisade layer thickness (and thus leaf thickness) in response to light and/or (ii) reduced cell expansion and intercellular air space in response to hydrostatic constraints, leading to increased leaf density. Our objective was to investigate within-canopy gradients in leaf anatomical traits in order to understand environmental factors that influence leaf morphology in a sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marshall) forest canopy. We teased apart the effects of light and height on anatomical traits by sampling at exposed and closed canopies that had different light conditions at similar heights. As expected, palisade layer thickness responded strongly to cumulative light exposure. Mesophyll porosity, however, was weakly and negatively correlated with light and height (i.e., hydrostatic gradients). Reduced mesophyll porosity was not likely caused by limitations on cell expansion; in fact, epidermal cell width increased with height. Palisade layer thickness was better related to LMA, leaf density and leaf thickness than was mesophyll porosity. Vein diameter and fraction of vascular tissue also increased with height and LMA, density and thickness, revealing that greater investment in vascular and support tissue may be a third mechanism for increased LMA with height. Overall, decreasing mesophyll porosity with height was likely due to palisade cells expanding into the available air space and also greater investments in vascular and support tissue, rather than a reduction of cell expansion due to hydrostatic constraints. Our results provide evidence that light influences both palisade layer thickness and mesophyll porosity and indicate that hydrostatic gradients influence leaf vascular and support tissues in mature Acer saccharum trees.

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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Publisher’s version of record:

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Tree Physiology