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Flowering phenology and reproduction of a forest understorey plant species in response to the local environment

Journal Contribution - Journal Article

Temperate forest understorey plants are subjected to a strong seasonality in their optimal growing conditions. In winter and early spring, low temperatures are suboptimal for plant growth while light becomes limited later in spring season. We can thus expect that differences in plant phenology in relation to spatiotemporal environmental variation will lead to differences in reproductive output, and hence selection. We specifically studied whether early flowering, a paradoxical pattern that is observed in many plant species, is an adaptive strategy, and whether selection for early flowering was confounded with selection for flower duration or was attributable to environmental variables. We used Geum urbanum as a study species to investigate the effect of relevant environmental factors on the species' flowering phenology and the consequences for plant reproductive output. We monitored the phenology of four to six plants in each of ten locations in a temperate deciduous forest (Belgium). We first quantified variation in flowering time within individuals and related this temporal variation to individual flower reproductive output. Then, we studied inter-individual variation here-in and linked this to reproduction at the plant level, hence studying the selection differential. We found that flowering within individual plants of Geum urbanum was spread over a long period from June to October. Reproductive output of individual flowers, measured as total seed mass per flower, declined during the season. We found no indication for selection for early flowering but rather for longer flower duration. Larger plants had an earlier flowering onset and a higher seed mass, which suggests that these factors covary and are condition dependent. None of the studied environmental variables could explain plant size, although soil pH and to a lesser extent light availability had a positive direct effect on seed mass per plant. Finally, we suggest that the high intra-individual variation in flowering time, which might be a risk spreading strategy of the plant in the presence of seed predation, limits the potential for selection on flowering phenology.
ISSN: 1573-5052
Issue: 6
Volume: 222
Pages: 749 - 760
Publication year:2021