Plant traits which may give an indication of a plant's strategy for nutrient acquisition and regeneration are known for numerous grassland species. This study aimed to establish whether there is any relationship between two plant traits: specific leaf area (SLA) and number of reproductive tillers, and sward structural characteristics which influence herbage intake by grazers (bulk density and digestibility, leaf:stem ratio). Comparison is made for nutrient-rich (Dactylis glomerata) and nutrient-poor (Festuca rubra) grass species. We hypothesized that these traits are responsive to environmental gradients and also act on the processes of the ecosystem. Both grasses were compared with two P-fertilizer rates in two localities (200 and 1300 m a.s.l.) which differed in their temperature:radiation ratios. For the vegetative phase SLA was well correlated with sward characteristics: D. glomerata, which has the higher SLA, has the lower bulk density and higher digestibility. The values of SLA and vegetation bulk density varied according to growing conditions (P-rate and temperature:radiation ratio), but the ranking of the species remained the same because the phenotypic plasticity that exists for plant traits was also observed for sward structure and composition. That suggested the possibility of grouping natural grassland species for their relevant characteristics for grazers according to SLA values. Over the reproductive phase, the proportion of stems was well correlated to the percentage of reproductive tillers. However, the percentage of reproductive tillers was a very plastic trait for both species, depending on the growing conditions, and resulting in a density-dependent effect, particularly for F. rubra. The species studied were too plastic and too similar in their regenerative strategy so that there is no unique relationship between percentage of reproductive tillers and stem proportion, regardless of the species and the growing conditions. The number of reproductive tillers is not a suitable plant trait which could be used to rank species for leaf and stem proportions in the sward.
Abbreviations: DM = Dry matter; LAR = Leaf area ratio; LWR = Leaf Weight Ratio; SLA = Specific Leaf Area.