Decomposition of roots in loblolly pine: Effects of nutrient and water availability and root size class on mass loss and nutrient dynamics

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The decomposition of plant-derived organic matter exerts strong control over the cycling of carbon and nutrients in terrestrial ecosystems and may be significantly altered by increased precipitation and nitrogen deposition associated with global change. It was the goal of this study to quantify the rate of belowground decomposition in an intact loblolly pine forest, and determine how this was affected by increased availability of water and nitrogen. A randomized complete-block factorial of irrigation and fertilization treatments was installed in an 8 yr old loblolly pine plantation in Scotland county, North Carolina. Fresh root samples of three size classes were buried in fiberglass mesh bags in January, 1994 and recovered at two-month intervals for two years. Samples were analyzed for percent mass remaining and contents of macro-nutrients. Roots decomposed in a two stage process: early in the incubation mass loss was correlated to size class and nutrient concentrations, but this correlation disappeared later in the incubation when rates of mass loss converged for all size classes. Decomposition was seldom affected by the irrigation and fertilization treatments, due to the buffering capacity of soil moisture and complex ecosystem-level responses to fertilization. Net mineralization of N, P, K, Ca, and Mg occurred in the smaller size classes of roots providing a source of these nutrients to the aggrading plantation for an estimated 2 to 15 years. The largest size class of roots was a sink for N, Ca, and Mg for the duration of this study, and was a source of P and K for an estimated 20 and 4 years, respectively. It is concluded that in moist temperate ecosystems belowground decomposition will be less affected by the projected increases in moisture and nutrient availability than will decomposition of the forest floor due to the buffering capacity of the soil. Further, small roots provide important sources of macro-nutrients for several decades to aggrading forests after large-scale disturbances such as harvesting of aboveground biomass.

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Plant and Soil