Decoupled leaf and root carbon economics is a key component in the ecological diversity and evolutionary divergence of deciduous and evergreen lineages of genus Rhododendron

Am J Bot. 2017 Jun;104(6):803-816. doi: 10.3732/ajb.1700051. Epub 2017 Jun 13.


Premise: We explored trait-trait and trait-climate relationships for 27 Rhododendron species while accounting for phylogenetic relationships and within-species variation to investigate whether leaf and root traits are coordinated across environments and over evolutionary time, as part of a whole-plant economics spectrum.

Methods: We examined specific leaf area (SLA) and four root traits: specific root length (SRL), specific root tip abundance (SRTA), first order diameter, and link average length, for plants growing in a cold, seasonal climate (Kirtland, Ohio) and a warmer, less seasonal climate (Federal Way, Washington) in the United States. We estimated a phylogeny and species' climate of origin, determined phylogenetic signal on mean traits and within-species variation, and used phylogenetically informed analysis to compare trait-trait and trait-climate relationships for deciduous and evergreen lineages.

Results: Mean SLA and within-species variation in SRL were more similar between close relatives than expected by chance. SLA and root traits differed according to climate of origin and across growth environments, though SLA differed within- and among-species less than roots. A negative SRL-SRTA correlation indicates investment in foraging scale vs. precision as a fundamental trade-off defining the root economic spectrum. Also, the deciduous clade exhibited a strong negative relationship between SLA and SRL, while evergreen clades showed a weaker positive or no relationship.

Conclusions: Our work suggests that natural selection has shaped relationships between above- and belowground traits in genus Rhododendron and that leaf and root traits may evolve independently. Morphological decoupling may help explain habitat diversity among Rhododendron species, as well as the changes accompanying the divergence of deciduous and evergreen lineages.

Keywords: Ericaceae; Rhododendron; plant economics spectrum; root morphology; specific leaf area; trait coordination.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Climate
  • Ecosystem
  • Ohio
  • Phylogeny*
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism*
  • Plant Roots / metabolism*
  • Rhododendron / classification*
  • Rhododendron / metabolism
  • Washington


  • Carbon