The vegetation N:P ratio: a new tool to detect the nature of nutrient limitation.

Published online
16 Apr 1997
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Koerselman, W. & Meuleman, A. F. M.

Publication language


Nutrient limitation (mostly N or P) is a driving force in ecosystem development. Current techniques to determine the nature of nutrient limitation use laborious fertilizer experiments. It was hypothesized that the N:P ratio of the vegetation directly indicates the nature of nutrient limitation on a community level (N vs. P limitation). This hypothesis was tested by reviewing data on fertilizer studies in a variety of European freshwater wetland ecosystems (bogs, fens, wet heathlands, dune slacks, wet grasslands). In a subset of the data (dune slacks) between-site intraspecific variation and within-site interspecific variation in nutrient content and N:P ratio was studied in five plant species. A review of 40 fertilizer studies reveals that an N:P ratio >16 indicates P limitation on a community level, while an N:P ratio <14 is indicative of N limitation. At N:P ratios between 14 and 16, either N or P can be limiting or plant growth is co-limited by N and P together. In only one out of 40 fertilizer studies, the N:P ratio gave a false indication of the nature of nutrient limitation. Measuring the N:P ratio of the vegetation is a simple and cheap alternative to fertilizer studies. The method can only be used under conditions where either N or P controls plant growth. The dataset contains a large variety of vegetation types and plant species, and 11 of the 40 sites were near-monocultures. This suggests that interspecific differences in critical N:P ratios among species may be insignificant. A survey in 18 dune slacks showed large within-site variation in N:P ratio among five species (Calamagrostis epigejos, Phragmites australis, Lycopus europaeus, Mentha aquatica and Eupatorium cannabinum). The N:P ratios of the five species suggested that within plant communities species can be differentially limited by N or P. Moreover, species with an N:P ratio that suggested P-limitation were found at sites where N controlled community biomass production, and vice versa. Between-site intraspecific variation in N and P contents and N:P ratios was also large, and about equal for the five species. This illustrates the plasticity of plant species with respect to N and P contents, probably in response to differences in N and P supply ratios. It is concluded that the vegetation N:P ratio is of diagnostic value and its use may increase our understanding of numerous facets of physiological, population, community and ecosystem ecology.

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