Agroforestry Systems

, Volume 92, Issue 1, pp 59–69 | Cite as

Phenotypic plasticity of roots in mixed tree species agroforestry systems: review with examples from peninsular India

  • B. Mohan Kumar
  • Shibu Jose


Agroforestry entails different life forms including mixtures of trees that occupy different soil strata and exhibit a certain degree of spatial complementarity in resource use. However, rigorous experimental studies characterising root interactions in tree–tree systems are notoriously few. We present here the available empirical evidence to support the hypothesis that occurrence of two or more tree species close to one another may favour diminished lateral spread and/or deeper root penetration of the woody components and closer the tree components are located greater will be the subsoil root activity. These evidences are based on either root excavation studies in coconut-based multistorey production systems, or 32P soil injection experiments involving binary mixtures of coconut+interplanted dicot multipurpose trees (Vateria indica, Ailanthus triphysa or Grevillea robusta), and bamboo (Bambusa bambos)+teak (Tectona grandis) or Malabar white pine (V. indica). The excavation study denotes a spatially segregated root distribution pattern of the component species. Furthermore, in the coconut + dicot tree system, interplanted dicot trees absorbed considerable quantities of the radio-label applied to the palm, which declined log-linearly with distance from the palms, signifying a substantial potential for “capturing” the lower leaching nutrients, at proximal distances. Likewise, lower teak/Vateria root activity in the surface horizons and higher activity in the deeper layers, when bamboo clumps were nearby and vice versa when they were farther apart, implied that proximity of species/individuals favoured competitive downward displacement of roots. Nutrient pumping and/or current transfer of nutrients between the rhizospheres of the two associated crops are also possible. In designing sustainable agroforestry systems, it is, therefore, advantageous to mix trees with divergent root growth habits.


Belowground architecture Nutrient pumping Root system plasticity Safety net role of trees Tree+tree systems 



This paper was written when the senior author was on a sabbatical at the University of Missouri, Columbia, MO (UMC). Financial support provided by Nalanda University (Faculty Development Allowance) and the Center for Agroforestry, UMC (Visiting Scholar Programme) to the senior author, are gratefully acknowledged.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Ecology and Environment StudiesNalanda UniversityRajgirIndia
  2. 2.The Center for AgroforestryUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA

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