Clothing the emperor: dynamic root–shoot allocation trajectories in relation to whole-plant growth rate and in response to temperature

David Robinson, John Henry Peterkin

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We quantified how root–shoot biomass allocation and whole-plant growth rate co-varied ontogenetically in contrasting species in response to cooling. Seven grass and four forb species were grown for 56 days in hydroponics. Growth was measured repeatedly before and after day/night temperatures were reduced at 28 days from 20 °C/15 °C to 10 °C/5 °C; controls remained unchanged. Sigmoid trajectories of root and shoot growth were reconstructed from the experimental data to derive continuous whole-plant relative growth rates (RGRs) and root mass fractions (RMFs). Root mass fractions in cooled plants generally increased, but this originated from unexpected and previously uncharacterised differences in response among species. Root mass fraction and RGR co-trajectories were idiosyncratic in controls and cooled plants. The RGR–RMF co-trajectories responded to cooling in grasses, but not forbs. The RMF responses of stress-tolerant grasses were predictably weak but projected to eventually out-respond faster-growing species. Sigmoid growth constrains biomass allocation. Only when neither root nor shoot biomass is near-maximal can biomass allocation respond to environmental drivers. Near maximum size, plants cannot adjust RMF, which then reflects net above- and belowground productivities. Ontogenetic biomass allocations are not equivalent to those based on interspecific surveys, especially in mature vegetation. This reinforces the importance of measuring temporal growth dynamics, and not relying on “snapshot” comparisons to infer the functional significance of root–shoot allocation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number212
Number of pages16
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2019


  • RCUK
  • NERC
  • allocation
  • biomass
  • forb
  • grass
  • relative growth rate
  • root mass fraction
  • root-shoot
  • temperature


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