Nitrogen cycling and storage in Gagea spathacea (Liliaceae) – ecological insights for protecting a rare woodland species

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review


  • Andreas Fichtner - , Leuphana University of Lüneburg (Author)
  • Diethart Matthies - , University of Marburg (Author)
  • Malin Armbrust - , Leuphana University of Lüneburg (Author)
  • Doris Jansen - , Jansen & Rickert, Neumünster (Author)
  • Knut Sturm - , Natural Forest Academy Luebeck (Author)
  • David Walmsley - , Leuphana University of Lüneburg (Author)
  • Goddert von Oheimb - , Institute of General Ecology and Environmental Protection, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle—Jena—Leipzig (Author)
  • Werner Härdtle - , Leuphana University of Lüneburg (Author)


Strategies to globally protect biological diversity are often hampered by an insufficient ecological knowledge about target species. This also applies to Gagea spathacea (Liliaceae), a ‘vulnerable’ woodland spring geophyte with a distribution largely restricted to the lowlands of Central Europe. We studied whether the species’ linkage to highly fertile forest soils is related to its high nitrogen (N) demands during its short developmental cycle. We hypothesized that the species exhibits a highly efficient N (re)cycling strategy, characterized by efficient resorption of N from the leaves and reallocation to bulbs at the end of the growing season. To test this assumption, we conducted a 15N tracer experiment and quantified 15N flows between soil, leaves, bulbs, and roots. Our findings support our hypothesis that G. spathacea is exceptionally efficient in recycling N, shown by the resorption of 68% of leaf N and its reallocation to bulbs at the end of the growing season. After 6 weeks of growth the plant showed a distinct shift in its N metabolism: The C:N ratio of leaves strongly increased and those of bulbs decreased, leaf 15N enrichment and recovery started to decrease, while total plant 15N recovery remained constant, indicating no further N uptake from the soil. Leaf N reallocation to bulbs was accompanied by a twofold increase of the bulbs’ biomass. Because of the stenoecious behaviour of G. spathacea, a careful protection and sustainable management of G. spathacea forest habitats is necessary, particularly in its Central European core area.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1117 - 1126
Number of pages10
JournalPlant Ecology
Publication statusPublished - 2018

External IDs

Scopus 85050905452
ORCID /0000-0001-7408-425X/work/147141706