Question: The quantification of functional traits in natural communities can be difficult (e.g. root traits, RGR). Can functional traits measured on pot grown plants be reliably applied to natural communities? Alternatively, can below-ground plant traits be predicted from above-ground traits?
Location: Southeastern Australia.
Methods: We compared 17 shoot, root and whole-plant morphological traits measured on 14 plant species in a native grassland community to those measured under two different pot conditions: unfertilised and fertilised.
Results: The majority of trait values for pot grown plants differed to plants in the field, however, species ranking remained consistent for most leaf traits between the field and the two pot growing conditions. In contrast, species ranking was not consistent for most whole plant traits when comparing field plants to fertilised pot grown plants, providing a caution against the tendency to grow plants in controlled conditions at ‘optimal’ (high) resource levels. Moderate to strong correlations were found between below-ground and above-ground plant traits, including between root dry matter content and leaf dry matter content, and between specific root area and specific leaf area.
Conclusions: The utility of pot grown plants to quantify traits for field plants is highly dependent on the selection of the growing conditions in the controlled environment. The consistency we observed between above-ground and below-ground trait strategies suggests that below-ground traits may be predictable based on above-ground traits, reducing the need to quantify root traits on cultured plants.