N:P Ratio and the Nature of Nutrient Limitation in Calluna-Dominated Heathlands

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There is growing evidence from different sources that prolonged high N deposition causes a shift from nitrogen (N) limitation to nitrogen and phosphorus (P) co-limitation or even P limitation in many terrestrial ecosystems. However, the number of ecosystems where the type of limitation has been directly tested by longer-term full-factorial field experiments is very limited. We conducted a 5-year fertilization experiment with N and P in the Lüneburger Heide (NW Germany) to test the hypothesis that, following decades of elevated atmospheric N inputs, plant growth in dry lowland heaths may have shifted from N to N-P co-limitation or P limitation. We also tested whether the plant tissue N:P ratio reflects the type of nutrient limitation in a continental lowland heathland. Experimental plots dominated by Calluna vulgaris received regular additions of N (50 kg N ha -1 y -1), P (20 kg P ha -1 y -1), a combination of both, or water only (control) from 2004 to 2008. Over the whole study period, a highly significant positive N effect on shoot length was found, thus indicating N limitation. We conclude that a clear shift from N limitation to N-P co-limitation or P limitation has not yet occurred. Tissue N:P ratios showed a high temporal variability and no relationship between tissue N:P ratio and the shoot length response of Calluna to nutrient addition was found. The N:P tool is thus of limited use at the local scale and within the range of N:P ratio observed in this study, and should only be used as a rough indicator for the prediction of the type of nutrient limitation in lowland heathland on a larger geographical scale with a broader interval of N:P ratio.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)317-327
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 01.03.2010

    Research areas

  • Ecosystems Research
  • Biology
  • Calluna vulgaris, Fertilization experiment, Nitrogen deposition, Nitrogen saturation, Phosphorus limitation, Plant growth