Optimality of nitrogen distribution among leaves in plant canopies

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The vertical gradient of the leaf nitrogen content in a plant canopy is one of the determinants of vegetation productivity. The ecological significance of the nitrogen distribution in plant canopies has been discussed in relation to its optimality; nitrogen distribution in actual plant canopies is close to but always less steep than the optimal distribution that maximizes canopy photosynthesis. In this paper, I review the optimality of nitrogen distribution within canopies focusing on recent advancements. Although the optimal nitrogen distribution has been believed to be proportional to the light gradient in the canopy, this rule holds only when diffuse light is considered; the optimal distribution is steeper when the direct light is considered. A recent meta-analysis has shown that the nitrogen gradient is similar between herbaceous and tree canopies when it is expressed as the function of the light gradient. Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain why nitrogen distribution is suboptimal. However, hypotheses explain patterns observed in some specific stands but not in others; there seems to be no general hypothesis that can explain the nitrogen distributions under different conditions. Therefore, how the nitrogen distribution in canopies is determined remains open for future studies; its understanding should contribute to the correct prediction and improvement of plant productivity under changing environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-311
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Plant Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2016 May 1


  • Canopy photosynthesis
  • Light extinction coefficient
  • Nitrogen allocation
  • Nitrogen use
  • Optimization


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