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Patterns of leaf morphology and leaf N content in relation to winter temperatures in three evergreen tree species
The competitive equilibrium between deciduous and perennial species in a new scenario of climate change may depend closely on the productivity of leaves along the different seasons of the year and on the morphological and chemical adaptations required for leaf survival during the different seasons. The aim of the present work was to analyze such adaptations in the leaves of three evergreen species (Quercus ilex, Q. suber and Pinus pinaster) and their responses to between-site differences in the intensity of winter harshness. We explore the hypothesis that the harshness of winter would contribute to enhancing the leaf traits that allow them to persist under conditions of stress. The results revealed that as winter harshness increases a decrease in leaf size occurs in all three species, together with an increase in the content of nitrogen per unit leaf area and a greater leaf mass per unit area, which seems to be achieved only through increased thickness, with no associated changes in density. P. pinaster was the species with the most intense response to the harshening of winter conditions, undergoing a more marked thickening of its needles than the two Quercus species. Our findings thus suggest that lower winter temperatures involve an increase in the cost of leaf production of evergreen species, which must be taken into account in the estimation of the final cost and benefit balance of evergreens. Such cost increases would be more pronounced for those species that, like P. pinaster, show a stronger response to the winter cold.