Aims Providing indispensably theoretical evidence for establishing indices of evaluation on drought tolerance in shrubs, and screening for tree species that are drought tolerant for afforestation in arid regions or for matching their characteristics with suitable habitat conditions are the key to vegetation restoration in the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau. However, these issues are not adequately addressed in recent research due to lack of systematic methods. Therefore, our objective was to make a comprehensive evaluation on drought tolerance in 20 shrub species collected from different areas in Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, and to study their underlying mechanisms in drought tolerance.
Methods We made measurements on variables depicting root characteristics, including the root length (TRL), surface area (TRSA), volume (TRV), and tips number (TRTN) of all roots, the root length (FRL), surface area (FRSA), volume (FRV), and tips number (FRTN) of fine roots (d ≤2 mm), and derived plant characteristic indices including thickness of cuticle (CT), thickness of palisade tissue (TPT), thickness of spongy tissue (TST), TPT/TST, thickness of leaf (LT), palisable tissue cell density, and tissue structural tense ratio (CTR = TPT/LT × 100%) and spongy tissue loosened ratio (SR = TST/LT × 100%) of leaf anatomical structure, root to shoot ratio (RSR), leaf transpiration rate (Tr), instantaneous water use efficiency (WUEi), and carbon isotopic composition (δ13C) of the 20 shrub species through field experiments. Correlation analysis and principal component analysis were performed on the 19 variables and indices.
Important findings Different shrubs had different mechanisms of drought tolerance. In this study, the characteristics of drought tolerance were mainly categorized into 6 types, involving modifications of (1) root systems, (2) leaf anatomical structure, (3) leaf pattern, and (4) biomass allocation, or via (5) low water-consumption and (6) high WUEi. Different genera or different tree species within the same genus clearly differed in drought tolerance. The species of the genus Hippophae were relatively poorly tolerant to drought, whereas several shrubs including Potentilla fruticosa, Berberis julianae, Caragana arborescens, Spiraea salicifolia and Hippophae rhamnoides ssp. mongolica occurred to be more drought tolerant than other shrub species investigated in this study. On the other hand, there were highly significant correlations among the characteristics of root systems and among characteristics of leaf anatomical structure. The results of principal component analysis on 19 variables and indices showed that TRL, TRSA, TRV, TRTN, FRL, FRSA, FRV, FRTN, CT, TPT, TST and WUEi could be effective indicators of drought tolerance of shrubs in the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau. In addition, the drought tolerance of shrubs had a close connection with their origin of collections; the shrubs collected from Xining prefecture in Qinghai Province were more drought tolerant than those from Tianshui Prefecture in Gansu and Lasa Prefecture in Xizang.