Spatial variability in the potential for symbiotic N2 fixation by woody plants in a subtropical savanna ecosystem

S. F. Zitzer, S. R. Archer, T. W. Boutton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


1. Root infection by symbiotic N2-fixing Frankia and Rhizobium strains was quantified in relation to light and soil properties for seedlings of 12 woody species from a subtropical savanna in southern Texas, USA. 2. None of four rhamnaceous species nodulated, despite the fact that bioassays with a known actinorhizal species yielded 13 nodules per seedling. Celtis pallida (Ulmaceae), Acacia greggii and Acacia berlandieri (Leguminosae) also failed to nodulate even though field populations of these species were characterized by high (2.7 4.2%) foliar nitrogen concentration. 3. Infective rhizobia occurred in all soils studied regardless of soil depth, distance from a host plant or type of plant cover. Plant growth in N-free media and acetylene reduction activity suggested that all nodules were capable of N2-fixation. 4. The extent of nodulation varied by species. However, nodulated seedlings were taller, produced more biomass and allocated less biomass to root systems than their non-nodulated counterparts. 5. Numbers of nodules on seedlings of Prasopis glandulosa, the dominant woody species in this subtropical savanna and throughout the south-western USA, were reduced by low light (15% full sunlight) regardless of soil N level; at medium and full sunlight nodule biomass expressed as a fraction of whole plant biomass decreased with increasing soil N. Nodulation of field-grown P. glandulosa appears to be ephemeral, apparently varying with changes in soil moisture. 6. Nodulation and N2 fixation among woody legumes in subtropical savannas can occur across a broad range of soil conditions and depths with significant impacts on local and regional N-cycles. 7. Field levels of foliar N in species that failed to nodulate in the laboratory were comparable to or greater than those in species capable of nodulation, suggesting that leaf N is not a reliable indicator of N2 fixation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1125-1136
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1996


  • Frankia
  • Leguminosae
  • Rhamnaceae
  • Rhizobium
  • leaf nitrogen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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