Global warming and associated decreases in summer rainfall may threaten tree vitality and forest productivity in many regions of the temperate zone in the future. One option for forestry to reduce the risk of failure is to plant genotypes which combine high productivity with drought tolerance. Growth experiments with provenances from different climates indicate that drought exposure can trigger adaptive drought responses in temperate trees, but it is not well known whether and to what extent regional precipitation reduction can increase the drought resistance of a species. We conducted a common garden growth experiment with five European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) populations from a limited region with pronounced precipitation heterogeneity (816-544 mm year(-1)), where phylogenetically related provenances grew under small to large water deficits. We grew saplings of the five provenances at four soil moisture levels (dry to moist) and measured ∼30 morphological (leaf and root properties, root : shoot ratio), physiological (leaf water status parameters, leaf conductance) and growth-related traits (above- and belowground productivity) with the aim to examine provenance differences in the drought response of morphological and physiological traits and to relate the responsiveness to precipitation at origin. Physiological traits were more strongly influenced by provenance (one-third of the studied traits), while structural traits were primarily affected by water availability in the experiment (two-thirds of the traits). The modulus of leaf tissue elasticity ϵ reached much higher values late in summer in plants from moist origins resulting in more rapid turgor loss and a higher risk of hydraulic failure upon drought. While experimental water shortage affected the majority of morphological and productivity-related traits in the five provenances, most parameters related to leaf water status were insensitive to water shortage. Thus, plant morphology, and root growth in particular, did respond to reduced water availability with higher phenotypic plasticity than did physiology. We conclude that beech provenances exposed to different precipitation regimes have developed some genotypic differences with respect to leaf water status regulation, but these adaptations are associated with only minor adaptation in plant morphology and they do not affect the growth rate of the saplings.
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