Under competitive conditions, stem elongation in plants is thought to enhance fitness by increasing light interception. However, the onset of competition should vary with the species of competitor due to interspecific differences in timing of emergence and plant growth form. The fitness benefits of elongation may therefore depend on the timing of this plastic response. Phenotypic selection analyses and path analysis were used to evaluate selection acting on stem elongation at early and late life-history stages and the combination of germination timing and elongation in an annual plant. Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) were raised in one of three environments experienced by natural populations (cornfields; soybean fields; and disturbed, weedy sites). Due to the rapid growth rate and high density of plants in disturbed areas, selection to increase seedling-stage elongation was expected in weedy sites. Due to the wide spacing of crop plants, competition for light is initially low in cultivated fields, but intensifies as the season progresses. Selection for increased elongation at later nodes was expected in soybean fields because velvetleaf can often overtop soy and thereby increase leaf exposure. In contrast, selection against late elongation was expected in cornfields because velvetleaf are incapable of overtopping corn. Individuals that elongate would experience the carbon cost of allocating to structural tissue, but fail to experience a carbon return through increased light interception. The phenotypic selection analyses were consistent with these predictions and therefore support the role of stem elongation as an adaptation to interspecific competition. Selection also acted on the combination of germination timing and elongation. In the weedy environment, early emergence in conjunction with enhanced stem elongation conveyed the highest fitness. Reduced elongation was favored among individuals that emerged late, potentially because these individuals were unable to overtop neighbors. The results of this study demonstrate that the timing of stem elongation strongly affects competitive success. Environments that differ in the timing of competition for light select for elongation at different life-history stages, and this selection depends on the timing of emergence.
Corresponding Editor: L. Nunney