The fine roots of trees may show plastic responses to their resource environment. Several, contrasting hypotheses exist on this plasticity, but empirical evidence for these hypotheses is scattered. This study aims to enhance our understanding of tree root plasticity by examining intra-specific variation in fine-root mass and morphology, fine-root growth and decomposition, and associated mycorrhizal interactions in beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) and spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karst.) forests on soils that differ in resource availability.
We measured the mass and morphological traits of fine roots (i.e. ≤ 2 mm diameter) sampled to 50 cm depth. Fine-root growth was measured with ingrowth cores, and fine-root decomposition with litter bags. Mycorrhizal fungal biomass was determined using ingrowth mesh bags.
Both tree species showed more than three times higher fine-root mass, and a ten-fold higher fine-root growth rate on sand than on clay, but no or marginal differences in overall fine-root morphology. Within the fine-root category however, beech stands had relatively more root length of their finest roots on clay than on sand. In the spruce stands, ectomycorrhizal mycelium biomass was larger on sand than on clay.
In temperate beech and spruce forests, fine-root mass and mycorrhizal fungal biomass, rather than fine-root morphology, are changed to ensure uptake under different soil resource conditions. Yet enhancing our mechanistic understanding of fine-root trait plasticity and how it affects tree growth requires more attention to fine-root dynamics, the functional diversity within the fine-roots, and mycorrhizal symbiosis as an important belowground uptake strategy.