Phenotypic variation in climate-associated traits of red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) along elevation gradients in the southern Appalachian Mountains
Red spruce (Picea rubens) is a long-lived tree species that thrives in cool, moist environs. Its ability to adapt to rapidly changing climate is uncertain. In the southern Appalachian Mountains, red spruce reaches its greatest abundance at high elevations, but can also occur across a range of mid and lower elevations, suggesting the possibility of a correlation between genetic variation and habitat. To assess clinal phenotypic variation in functional traits related to climate adaptation, we collected seed from 82 maternal sib families located along replicated elevational gradients in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN (GSMNP) and Mount Mitchell State Park, NC (MMSP). The percentage of filled seeds and seed mass increased with elevation, indicating that successful pollination and seed development was greatest at the highest elevations. Seedlings sourced from GSMNP displayed a strong relationship between elevation and bud set when grown under common garden conditions. High elevation families set bud as many as 10 days earlier than low elevation families, indicating adaptation to local climate. Across parks, no effect of elevation was noted for bud flush. Our results demonstrate that red spruce in the southern Appalachian Mountains displays clinal variation in bud set that may reflect local adaptation to climate, although this varied between the two parks sampled. We suggest that genetic adaption of red spruce to different climate regimes, at both local and broad spatial scales, is in need of more intensive study, and should be carefully considered when selecting seed sources for restoration.