Aims: Root characteristics are important for predicting plant and ecosystem responses to resource scarcity. Simple, categorical traits for roots could be broadly applied to ecosystem function and restoration experiments, but they need to be evaluated for their role and behaviour under various stresses, including water limitation. We hypothesised that more complex root architectures allow more plastic responses to limited water than do tap roots.
Methods: We carried out two greenhouse experiments: one with a range of grassland plant species; the other with only species of Asteraceae to test the responsiveness of root architectural classes to location of limited water in the soil column. Using trait screening techniques and X-ray tomography, we measured the plasticity of the roots in response to water location.
Results: Plasticity of root biomass was lowest in tap rooted species, while fibrous and rhizomatous roots allocated biomass preferentially to where the soil was wettest. X-ray tomography indicated that root morphology was least plastic in rhizomatous species.
Conclusions: Our results provide a starting point to effective categorisation of plants in terms of rooting architecture that could aid in understanding drought tolerance of grassland species. They also demonstrate the utility of X-ray tomography in root analyses.