Spring ephemerals are a group of herbaceous plants that fulfill their life cycle on the floor of deciduous forests in temperate and boreal regions during a short period of time between snowmelt and closure of the tree canopy. Near the closure, these plants' shoots senesce rapidly and the plants disappear from the floor. Since the major role of the synchronous senescence is thought to be the recycling of nutrients from vegetative organs to seeds or storage organs, some endogenous compound that is capable of promoting senescence must be involved in the timely senescence. Strong senescence-promoting activity was found in extracts of shoots of a spring ephemeral, Gagea lutea (Liliaceae), and the activity in basal leaves reached a maximum just before the commencement of senescence. The active compound was identified as α-linolenic acid. The level, very low 1 week before flowering, increased rapidly with time and reached a maximum 1 week after flowering. Senescence was readily observed thereafter. The maximum amount of linolenic acid was >1 mmol kg FW-1 and could fully induce senescence of the leaves. The results suggest that the ephemerality of the plant or, in other words, short longevity of shoots, is brought about by the accumulation of linolenic acid. Programmed senescence, which can mitigate the cost of survival and reproduction, enables the plant to occupy a narrow niche on the forest floor.
Keywords: Gagea lutea; Linolenic acid; Shoot senescence; Spring ephemeral.
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