Tolerance or avoidance: drought frequency determines the response of an N 2 -fixing tree
• Climate change is increasing drought frequency, which may affect symbiotic N2 fixation (SNF), a process that facilitates ecosystem recovery from disturbance. Here, we assessed the effect of drought frequency on the ecophysiology and SNF rate of a common N2-fixing tree in eastern US forests.
•We grew Robinia pseudoacacia seedlings under the same mean soil moisture, but with different drought frequency caused by wet–dry cycles of varying periodicity.
•We found no effect of drought frequency on final biomass or mean SNF rate. However, seedlings responded differently to wet and dry phases depending on drought frequency. Under low-frequency droughts, plants fixed carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) at similar rates during wet and dry phases. Conversely, under high-frequency droughts, plants fixed C and N at low rates during dry phases and at high rates during wet phases.
•Our findings suggest that R. pseudoacacia growth is resistant to increased drought frequency because it employs two strategies – drought tolerance or drought avoidance, followed by compensation. SNF may play a role in both by supplying N to leaf tissues for acclimation and by facilitating compensatory growth following drought. Our findings point to SNF as a mechanism for plants and ecosystems to cope with drought