Traits including leaf dry matter content and leaf pH dominate over forest soil pH as drivers of litter decomposition among 60 species

Jianping Tao*, Juan Zuo, Ze He, Yuping Wang, Jinchun Liu, Wendan Liu, Johannes H.C. Cornelissen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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    Soil pH varies by several units among ecosystems. While soil pH is known to be a key driver of plant species composition, we still have a poor understanding of how it affects carbon cycling processes. For instance, soil pH, or its associated chemistry in terms of base cations and organic acids, may affect decomposition rates of dead matter directly, by controlling decomposer composition and activity and, indirectly, by controlling the traits of the plant species and thereby the afterlife effects of those traits on litter decomposition. Leaf and litter pH may play a role in this control. Based on the very limited empirical data available, we hypothesized that variation in species traits including leaf (litter) pH, within and between ecosystems contrasting in soil pH, would have stronger effects on leaf litter decomposition rates than variation in soil chemistry would. We tested this hypothesis by carrying out a ‘common garden’ litterbed experiment in subtropical SW China, in which leaf litters of the 30 predominant plant species from mid-successional forest on acidic sandstone (soil pH around 4.0) and calcareous soil (pH around 7.5), respectively, were incubated and their decomposition rates measured over two harvests in 14 months, both in soil plus litter matrix from their ‘home’ forest and in those from the ‘away’ forest. We found that leaf (litter) trait variation among species and plant functional types, headed by species' dry matter content but also including tissue pH, was the strongest driver of variation in leaf litter decomposition rates. Surprisingly, however, while these effects of interspecific trait variation were very strong among species from the same site, there was no overall difference in litter decomposability between the species from the acidic versus calcareous site. Equally surprising was that this strong difference in pH of soil substrate plus litter matrix from an acidic sandstone site versus a calcareous karst site did not directly affect leaf litter decomposition rates across a given species set. This first attempt to disentangle the multiple potential direct and indirect ways in which soil and leaf (litter) acidity might be related to litter decomposition rates has important implications for our understanding of soil–plant feedbacks. Based on our forest-based study, we predict that soil–plant feedbacks via acidity are unlikely to be strong in ecosystems with wide-ranging species in terms of their leaf functional traits, including leaf pH.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1798-1810
    Number of pages13
    JournalFunctional Ecology
    Issue number9
    Early online date19 Jul 2019
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2019


    We thank several students and other staff who helped with litter collecting or worked in the experimental garden at SW China University, including Lian Wang, Haitan Zhang and Qingxue Guo and staff at Haishi Park for allowing us to collect litter there. JP Tao was funded by National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFC0502304); JHC Cornelissen benefitted from his long‐term visiting professorship at SW China University and from grant CEP‐12CDP007 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    FundersFunder number
    China UniversityCEP-12CDP007
    National Key R&D Program of China2016YFC0502304
    SW China University
    Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen


      • calcareous substrate
      • leaf traits
      • litter decomposability
      • litter pH
      • sandstone substrate
      • soil acidity
      • soil chemistry
      • soil–plant feedbacks


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