Both genetic differentiation and phenotypic plasticity might be expected to affect the location of geographic range limits. Co-gradient variation (CoGV), plasticity that is congruent with genetic differentiation, may enhance performance at range margins, whereas its opposite, counter-gradient variation (CnGV) may hinder performance. Here we report findings of reciprocal transplant experiments intended to tease apart the roles of differentiation and plasticity in producing phenotypic variation across a geographic border between two plant subspecies. Clarkia xantiana ssp. xantiana and C. xantiana ssp. parviflora are California-endemic annuals that replace each other along a west–east gradient of declining precipitation. We analyzed variation in floral traits, phenological traits, and vegetative morphological and developmental traits by sowing seeds of 18 populations (six of ssp. xantiana and 12 of ssp. parviflora) at three sites (one in each subspecies' exclusive range and one in the subspecies' contact zone), in two growing seasons (an exceptionally wet El Niño winter and a much drier La Niña winter). Significant genetic differences between subspecies appeared in 11 of 12 traits, and differences were of the same sign as in nature. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that selection is responsible for subspecies differences. Geographic variation within subspecies over part of the spatial gradient mirrored between-subspecies differences present at a larger scale. All traits showed significant plasticity in response to spatial and temporal environmental variation. Plasticity patterns ranged from spatial and temporal CoGV (e.g., in node of first flower), to spatial CnGV (e.g., in flowering time), to patterns that were neither CoGV nor CnGV (the majority of traits). Instances of CoGV may reflect adaptive plasticity and may serve to increase performance under year-to-year environmental variation and at sites near the subspecies border. However, the presence of spatial CnGV in some critical traits suggests that subspecies ranges may also be constrained by patterns of plasticity.
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