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Ann Bot. 2009 Jan;103(2):377-86. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcn149. Epub 2008 Aug 19.

Variation in flooding-induced morphological traits in natural populations of white clover (Trifolium repens) and their effects on plant performance during soil flooding.

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Department of Experimental Plant Ecology, Institute for Water and Wetland Research, Radboud University Nijmegen, Heyendaalseweg 135, 6525 AJ Nijmegen, the Netherlands.



Soil flooding leads to low soil oxygen concentrations and thereby negatively affects plant growth. Differences in flooding tolerance have been explained by the variation among species in the extent to which traits related to acclimation were expressed. However, our knowledge of variation within natural species (i.e. among individual genotypes) in traits related to flooding tolerance is very limited. Such data could tell us on which traits selection might have taken place, and will take place in future. The aim of the present study was to show that variation in flooding-tolerance-related traits is present among genotypes of the same species, and that both the constitutive variation and the plastic variation in flooding-induced changes in trait expression affect the performance of genotypes during soil flooding.


Clones of Trifolium repens originating from a river foreland were subjected to either drained, control conditions or to soil flooding. Constitutive expression of morphological traits was recorded on control plants, and flooding-induced changes in expression were compared with these constitutive expression levels. Moreover, the effect of both constitutive and flooding-induced trait expression on plant performance was determined.


Constitutive and plastic variation of several morphological traits significantly affected plant performance. Even relatively small increases in root porosity and petiole length contributed to better performance during soil flooding. High specific leaf area, by contrast, was negatively correlated with performance during flooding.


The data show that different genotypes responded differently to soil flooding, which could be linked to variation in morphological trait expression. As flooded and drained conditions exerted different selection pressures on trait expression, the optimal value for constitutive and plastic traits will depend on the frequency and duration of flooding. These data will help us understanding the mechanisms affecting short- and long-term dynamics in flooding-prone ecosystems.

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