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Extended leaf senescence promotes carbon gain and nutrient resorption: importance of maintaining winter photosynthesis in subtropical forests


The relative advantages of being deciduous or evergreen in subtropical forests and the relationship between leaf phenology and nutrient resorption efficiency are not well understood. The most successful deciduous species (Lyonia ovalifolia) in an evergreen-dominated subtropical montane cloud forest in southwest (SW) China maintains red senescing leaves throughout much of the winter. The aim of this study was to investigate whether red senescing leaves of this species were able to assimilate carbon in winter, to infer the importance of maintaining a positive winter carbon balance in subtropical forests, and to test whether an extended leaf life span is associated with enhanced nutrient resorption and yearly carbon gain. The red senescing leaves of L. ovalifolia assimilated considerable carbon during part of the winter, resulting in a higher yearly carbon gain than co-occurring deciduous species. Its leaf N and P resorption efficiency was higher than for co-occurring non-anthocyanic deciduous species that dropped leaves in autumn, supporting the hypothesis that anthocyanin accumulation and/or extended leaf senescence help in nutrient resorption. Substantial winter carbon gain and efficient nutrient resorption may partially explain the success of L. ovalifolia versus that of the other deciduous species in this subtropical forest. The importance of maintaining a positive carbon balance for ecological success in this forest also provides indirect evidence for the dominance of evergreen species in the subtropical forests of SW China.

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We would like to thank the staff of the Ailaoshan Station for Subtropical Ecosystem Studies who provided the climate data and logistic support. We thank the staff of the Biogeochemistry Laboratory of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden for the determination of nutrient concentrations. We also would like to thank Mr. Fu Xuwei, Mr. Zeng Xiaodong, Mr. Qi Jinhua, Mr. Luo Xin, Mr. Ai Ke, Mr. Li Xinde, and Mr. Liu Yuhong for their assistance in the field work. Y-J Zhang is currently supported by a Giorgio Ruffolo Fellowship in the Sustainability Science Program at the J.F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This study was supported by a grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (30670320).

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Correspondence to Guillermo Goldstein or Kun-Fang Cao.

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Communicated by Andrea Polle.

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Zhang, Y., Yang, Q., Lee, D.W. et al. Extended leaf senescence promotes carbon gain and nutrient resorption: importance of maintaining winter photosynthesis in subtropical forests. Oecologia 173, 721–730 (2013).

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  • Deciduousness
  • Leaf phenology
  • Carbon balance
  • Anthocyanin
  • Cloud forest