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Woody plant phenology in the West Africa savanna

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In the savanna of West Africa the seasonality of rainfall, with a drought period of at least four months, strongly influences the vegetation. Rainfall is a very critical abiotic variable and therefore plant species must be well adapted to survive in this habitat.

In our research, phenological patterns of 120 woody plant species have been examined based on the presence of green leaves. According to the patterns found, these species can be classified in phenological groups, which represent different strategies for survival. Two extreme strategies are found to resist drought: (1) by using the waterstorage in the deeper soil layers and river beds and by restricting drought-damage through scleromorphic features, and (2) by avoiding the drought through foliage shedding in the dry period.

The first strategy is represented by the riparian and upland evergreens, and the semi-evergreens. The evergreens bear leaves the whole year, gradually replacing old leaves by new ones. The riparian evergreens are strictly bound to riverbeds and grow in or immediately adjacent to them. The semi-evergreens shed their leaves and start sprouting during a short period (one-two weeks) once a year. Because the evergreens and the semi-evergreens are in leaf in the dry period they have to protect themselves to drought damage by scleromorphic features.

Contrary to these species are the deciduous species which are bare for at least some months per year. When the dry season starts their leaves dry out and are subsequently shed. They start sprouting before or at the beginning of the first rains. Although much less in number, some deciduous trees also have scleromorphic features to resist drought-damage. The strategy of sprouting just before the rainy season begins indicates that certain water resources remain available to these deep-rooting woody plants throughout the year, providing them with a fully operating photosynthetic apparatus when favourable conditions arrive.

Keywords: Phenology; West Africa; savanna; woody plants

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Terrestrial Ecology and Nature Conservation, Agricultural University, Bornsesteeg 69, 6708 PD Wageningen, The Netherlands

Publication date: September 1, 1998

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