Phenotypic plasticity and rapid evolution are two important strategies by which invasive species adapt to a wide range of environments and consequently are closely associated with plant invasion. To test their importance in invasion success of Crofton weed, we examined the phenotypic response and genetic variation of the weed by conducting a field investigation, common garden experiments, and intersimple sequence repeat (ISSR) marker analysis on 16 populations in China. Molecular markers revealed low genetic variation among and within the sampled populations. There were significant differences in leaf area (LA), specific leaf area (SLA), and seed number (SN) among field populations, and plasticity index (PIv) for LA, SLA, and SN were 0.62, 0.46 and 0.85, respectively. Regression analyses revealed a significant quadratic effect of latitude of population origin on LA, SLA, and SN based on field data but not on traits in the common garden experiments (greenhouse and open air). Plants from different populations showed similar reaction norms across the two common gardens for functional traits. LA, SLA, aboveground biomass, plant height at harvest, first flowering day, and life span were higher in the greenhouse than in the open-air garden, whereas SN was lower. Growth conditions (greenhouse vs. open air) and the interactions between growth condition and population origin significantly affect plant traits. The combined evidence suggests high phenotypic plasticity but low genetically based variation for functional traits of Crofton weed in the invaded range. Therefore, we suggest that phenotypic plasticity is the primary strategy for Crofton weed as an aggressive invader that can adapt to diverse environments in China.
Nomenclature: Crofton weed, Eupatorium adenophorum Spreng EUPAD.