Episodic defoliation rapidly reduces starch but not soluble sugars in an invasive shrub, Tamarix spp.
Premise: Plants rely on pools of internal nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs: soluble sugars plus starch) to support metabolism, growth, and regrowth of tissues damaged from disturbance such as foliage herbivory. However, impacts of foliage herbivory on the quantity and composition of NSC pools in long-lived woody plants are currently unclear. We implemented a controlled defoliation experiment on mature Tamarix spp.-a dominant riparian woody shrub/tree that has evolved with intense herbivory pressure-to test two interrelated hypotheses: (1) Repeated defoliation disproportionately impacts aboveground versus belowground NSC storage. (2) Defoliation disproportionately impacts starch versus soluble sugar storage. Methods: Hypotheses were tested by transplanting six Tamarix seedlings into each of eight cylinder mesocosms (2 m diameter, 1 m in depth). After 2.5 years, plants in four of the eight mesocosms were mechanically defoliated repeatedly over a single growing season, and all plants were harvested in the following spring. Results: Defoliation had no impact on either above- or belowground soluble sugar pools. However, starch in defoliated plants dropped to 55% and 26% in stems and roots, respectively, relative to control plants, resulting in an over 2-fold higher soluble sugar to starch ratio in defoliated plants. Conclusions: The results suggest that defoliation occurring over a single growing season does not impact immediate plant functions such as osmoregulation, but depleted starch could limit future fitness, particularly where defoliation occurs over multiple years. These results improve our understanding of how woody plants cope with episodic defoliation caused by foliage herbivory and other disturbances.