Plant species and growth forms differ widely in litter chemistry, which affects decay and may have important consequences for plant growth via e.g. the release of nutrients and growth-inhibitory compounds. We investigated the overall short-term (9.5 months) and medium-term (21.5 months) feedback effects of leaf litter quality and quantity on plant production, and tested whether growth forms can be used to generalise differences among litter species. Leaf litter effects of 21 sub-arctic vascular peatland species on Poa alpina test plants changed clearly with time. Across all growth forms, litter initially reduced plant biomass compared with untreated plants, particularly litters with a high decomposition rate or low initial lignin/P ratio. In the second year, however, litter effects were neutral or positive, and related to initial litter N concentration (positive), C/N, polyphenol/N and polyphenol/P ratios (all negative), but not to decomposability. Differences in effect size among several litter species were large, while differences in response to increasing litter quantities were not significant or of similar magnitude to differences in response to three contrasting litter species. Growth forms did not differ in initial litter effects, but second-year plant production showed a trend (P < 0.10) for differences in response to litters of different growth forms: evergreen shrubs < graminoids or deciduous shrubs < forbs. While long-persisting negative litter effects were predominant across all growth forms, our data indicate that even within nutrient-constrained ecosystems such as northern peatlands, vascular plant species, and possibly growth forms, differ in litter feedbacks to plant growth. Differences in the composition of undisturbed plant communities or species shifts induced by external disturbance, such as climate change, may therefore feedback strongly to plant biomass production and probably nutrient cycling rates in northern peatlands.
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