An alpine fellfield community on granite substrate (elevation 3750 m) near the University of California Barcroft Laboratory in the White Mountains of eastern California was studied during the 2000 growing season to determine whether classic perennial life forms can be treated as plant functional groups. A series of 1-m2 quadrat samples were measured to determine common species. The four species with greatest cover were Penstemon heterodoxus var. heterodoxus, Trifolium andersonii var. beatleyae, Poa glauca subsp. rupicola, and Eriogonum ovalifolium var. nivale. These and four additional common perennial species were selected for ecophysiological studies representing four distinct ecological life forms: chamaephytes, cushion plants (including mat formers), herbaceous dicot perennials, and graminoid perennials. Summer midday leaf temperatures for species with foliage held close to ground surface were up to 20°C higher than air temperatures, whereas on upright species, leaves away from the ground surface closely matched ambient temperatures. For the eight species, peak values of mean maximum photosynthetic rates ranged from 11.5–25.5 μmol CO2 m−2 s−1, typical of published values, although chamaephytes in the study showed higher rates comparable to herbaceous perennials. Water-use efficiency, as estimated by a ratio of internal to ambient CO2, was relatively high (ci:ca ratios of 0.43–0.59) compared to published data. During the stressful end of the growing season, neither predawn nor midday shoot water potentials ever reached low levels, presenting conflicting evidence for the role of soil moisture as a limiting factor. Overall, the data on plant functional attributes showed no strong patterns of differences between categories of life forms in the fellfield community, suggesting that classical life forms in this habitat do not represent plant functional groups.
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