In arid ecosystems, a few large summer rains frequently differentiate wet years from dry ones. However, use of this additional water by plants has limited experimental evidence. We applied a 16-mm summer water pulse (12% of mean annual precipitation) to two plant communities of the Patagonian steppe, and compared responses of three dominant species, which can be ordered by decreasing xerophytism and increasing rooting depth and summer activity: 1) colapiche, evergreen dwarf shrub (Nassauvia glomerulosa [Lag.] Don); 2) coirón amargo, evergreen grass (Stipa speciosa Trin. et Rupr.); and 3) neneo, drought deciduous shrub (Mulinum spinosum [Cav.] Pers.). Shallow-rooted species (S. speciosa and N. glomerulosa), which use water from dry soil layers, showed a greater leaf water potential response to watering than deep-rooted species (M. spinosum). Leaf water potential response was greater and quicker in xerophytic species than in mesophytic ones (N. glomerulosa > S. speciosa > M. spinosum). However, this response only translated into leaf conductance and transpiration responses for coirón amargo, probably because the species with winter phenological cycle (N. glomerulosa) is less able to utilize summer water inputs than species with a summer phenological cycle (S. speciosa). The lack of response of deep-rooted M. spinosum in leaf conductance, transpiration, and photosynthesis may have been due to the high leaf water potential of control plants. Instead, in S. speciosa and N. glomerulosa net photosynthesis decreased below zero following watering, suggesting the start of growth pulses. The complex chain of plant processes triggered by rainfall, and the constraints imposed to different species by rooting depth, phenology, and xerophytism, could explain the frequent low response to both large rainfall events and above-average rainfall years in this arid community. Our results suggest that, paradoxically, water may be suboptimally used at local scales in arid rangeland ecosystems.
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Vol. 62 • No. 2