Variation in nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations of wetland plants
The use of nutrient concentrations in plant biomass as easily measured indicators of nutrient availability and limitation has been the subject of a controversial debate. In particular, it has been questioned whether nutrient concentrations are mainly species' traits or mainly determined by nutrient availability, and whether plant species have similar or different relative nutrient requirements. This review examines how nitrogen and phosphorus concentration and the N:P ratio in wetland plants vary among species and sites, and how they are related to nutrient availability and limitation. We analyse data from field studies in European non-forested wetlands, from fertilisation experiments in these communities and from growth experiments with wetland plants. Overall, the P concentration was more variable than the N concentration, while variation in N:P ratios was intermediate. Field data showed that the N concentration varies more among species than among sites, whereas the N:P ratio varies more among sites than among species, and the P concentration varies similarly among both. Similar patterns of variation were found in fertilisation experiments and in growth experiments under controlled nutrient supply. Nutrient concentrations and N:P ratios in the vegetation were poorly correlated with various measures of nutrient availability in soil, but they clearly responded to fertilisation in the field and to nutrient supply in growth experiments. In these experiments, biomass N:P ratios ranged from 3 to 40 and primarily reflected the relative availabilities of N and P, although N:P ratios of plants grown at the same nutrient supply could vary three-fold among species. The effects of fertilisation with N or P on the biomass production of wetland vegetation were well related to the N:P ratios of the vegetation in unfertilised plots, but not to N or P concentrations, which supports the idea that N:P ratios, rather than N or P concentrations, indicate the type of nutrient limitation. However, other limiting or stressing factors may influence N:P ratios, and the responses of individual plant species to fertilisation cannot be predicted from their N:P ratios. Therefore, N:P ratios should only be used to assess which nutrient limits the biomass production at the vegetation level and only when factors other than N or P are unlikely to be limiting.