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Research article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

Functional trait space in cereals and legumes grown in pure and mixed cultures is influenced more by cultivar identity than crop mixing

Ajal, James; Jack, Ortrud; Vico, Giulia; Weih, Martin


More efficient resource use, especially nitrogen (N) in agricultural fields could considerably reduce the losses and spillover effects on the environment. Cereal-legume mixtures can lead to more efficient uptake of growth-limiting resources, and increase and stabilize yields, due to the variation in functional traits that facilitate partitioning of niche space. Here we identify crop mixtures with functional traits that facilitate optimal N resource use in two selected cereal-legume mixtures by using the multi-dimensional trait space concept. Combinations of pea-barley and faba bean-wheat crops were grown in the field as pure cultures and mixtures in Central Sweden, during two years with contrasting weather. The ecological niche space was defined via the n-dimensional hypervolumes represented by N pool, tiller/branch number, shoot biomass, and grain yield functional traits. Regressions and correlations allowed quantifying the relations between functional traits and plant N pools. Differences in trait space were not a result of crop mixing per se, as similar hypervolumes were found in the pure culture and mixture-grown crops. Instead, the trait space differences depended on the cultivar identities admixed. Furthermore, cereals increased their efficiency for N uptake and therefore benefitted more than the legumes in the mixtures, in terms of accumulated N and grain yields. Tiller and shoot biomass production in cereals was positively correlated to N pool accumulation during the season. Resource acquisition through increased N uptake in the mixture was associated with a reduced overlap in niche-space in the mixtures, and initial seed N pools significantly contributed to within-season N accumulation, shoot and tiller production.


Crop mixtures; Functional traits; Hypervolume; Plant nitrogen uptake; Plant-plant interaction; Trait space

Published in

Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics
2021, Volume: 50, article number: 125612