The effect of living plants on root decomposition of four grass species

T.A.J. van der Krift, P.J. Kuikman, F. Berendse

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Abstract

We tested whether living plant roots of Holcus lanatus and Festuca ovina can affect the decomposition rate of dead roots of Holcus lanatus, Festuca rubra, Anthoxanthum odoratum and Festuca ovina. Moreover, we investigated whether this effect is dependent on the decomposing root species or the nitrogen supply during the growth of the roots. The selected perennial grass species are typical of grassland habitats in a range from high to low nitrogen availability: H. lanatus, F. rubra, A. odoratum and F. ovina. Seedlings of these species were homogeneously labelled with 14CO2 for eight weeks. Plants were grown on soil at two nitrogen levels: one without additional nitrogen and one with nitrogen addition (14 g N m2). At the start of the decomposition experiment 14C labelled roots were separated from soil and incubated in litterbags (mesh width 1 mm) in fresh soil. These 14C labelled roots were left to decompose for 19 weeks in an open greenhouse in soil planted with H. lanatus or F. ovina and in unplanted soil. After the incubation period, the decomposition of the 14C labelled roots of the four species was measured. The mass and 14C losses from the dead roots were calculated and the living plant biomass and C, N and P contents of the living plants were measured. Living plant roots of F. ovina had positive effects on the decomposition rate of F. ovina root litter, but dead A. odoratum roots from the N fertilized treatment decomposed slower in the presence of living F. ovina plants. It seems likely that living plants like F. ovina exude carbon compounds that stimulate the growth of soil microbes and thereby increase dead root decomposition and mineralization. Root decomposition rates differed among the species. We found no evidence to support our hypothesis that dead roots of high fertility species (i.e. H. lanatus and F. rubra) decompose faster than dead roots of low fertility species (i.e. A. odoratum and F. ovina). In unplanted soil, the mass loss and total 14C loss from A. odoratum dead roots were higher than those from H. lanatus, F. rubra and F. ovina dead roots. Dead roots of F. ovina lost less mass and total 14C than dead roots of H. lanatus.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)36-45
JournalOikos
Volume96
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2002

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