Cover crops can produce ecosystem services during the fallow period, as reducing nitrate leaching and producing green manure. Crop growth rate (CGR) and crop nitrogen acquisition rate (CNR) can be used as two indicators of the ability of cover crops to produce these services in agrosystems.
We used leaf functional traits to characterise the growth strategies of 36 cover crops as an approach to assess their ability to grow and acquire N rapidly. We measured specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC), leaf nitrogen content (LNC) and leaf area (LA) and we evaluated their relevance to characterise CGR and CNR.
Cover crop species were positioned along the Leaf Economics Spectrum (LES), the SLA-LDMC plane, and the CSR triangle of plant strategies. LA was positively correlated with CGR and CNR, while LDMC was negatively correlated with CNR. All cover crops could be classified as resource-acquisitive species from their relative position on the LES and the SLA-LDMC plane. Most cover crops were located along the Competition/Ruderality axis in the CSR triangle.
In particular, Brassicaceae species were classified as very competitive, which was consistent with their high CGR and CNR. Leaf functional traits, especially LA and LDMC, allowed to differentiate some cover crops strategies related to their ability to grow and acquire N. LDMC was lower and LNC was higher in cover crop than in wild species, pointing to an efficient acquisitive syndrome in the former, corresponding to the high resource availability found in agrosystems.
Combining several leaf traits explained approximately half of the CGR and CNR variances, which might be considered insufficient to precisely characterise and rank cover crop species for agronomic purposes. We hypothesised that may be the consequence of domestication process, which has reduced the range of plant strategies and modified the leaf trait syndrome in cultivated species.