Late frost can cause damage to trees, especially to the developing bud of broadleaf species in spring. Through long-term adaptation, plants adjust leaf phenology to achieve an optimal trade-off between growing season length and frost avoidance. In this study, we aim to assess ecotypic differentiation in leaf development of sugar maple populations planted in a common garden. A total of 272 sugar maple seedlings from 29 Canadian provenances were planted at the northern boundary of the natural range, and the phenological phases of bud and leaf development were monitored during spring 2019. The wide geographical area under evaluation showed a complex seasonal pattern of temperature, with spring warming occurring later in the north and close to the sea. Overall, leaf development lasted between 20 and 36 days, from the end of May to end of June. We observed different timings and rates of leaf development among provenances, demonstrating the occurrence of ecotypes in this species. Minimum April temperatures of the original sites were able to explain such differences, while maximum April temperatures were not significant. Seedlings from sites with colder minimum April temperatures completed leaf development earlier and faster. On average, leaf development diverged by up to 6 days among provenances, with minimum April temperatures ranging from -3 to 3 °C. Our results demonstrated that the avoidance of late spring frost is a driving force of leaf development in sugar maple populations. In the colder sites, the growing season is a limiting factor for tree growth. Thus, when thermal conditions become favorable in spring, an earlier growth reactivation and high metabolic activity ensure a fast leaf emission, which maximizes the period available for photosynthesis and growth. These patterns demonstrate the long-term phenological adaptation of sugar maple populations to local climatic conditions and suggest the importance of frost events for leaf development.
Keywords: Acer saccharum; adaptation; bud phenology; common garden; ecotype; frost events.
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