Phenotypic plasticity and interactions among plants

Ragan M. Callaway, Steven C. Pennings, Christina L. Richards

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

420 Scopus citations


We know a great deal about the plastic responses of plant phenotypes to the abiotic and biotic environment, but very little about the consequences of phenotypic plasticity for plant communities. In other words, we know that plant traits can vary widely for a given genotype, but we know little about the importance of trait-mediated interactions (TMI) among plants. Here, we discuss three major factors that affect the expression of phenotypic plasticity: variation in the abiotic environment, variation in the presence or identity of neighbors, and variation in herbivory. We consider how plastic responses to these factors might affect interactions among plants. Plastic responses to the abiotic environment have important consequences for conditionality in competitive effects, to the point of causing shifts from competitive to facilitative interactions. Because plants show a high degree of plasticity in response to neighbors, and even to the specific identify of neighbors, phenotypic plasticity may allow species to adjust to the composition of their communities, promoting coexistence and community diversity. Likewise, plastic responses to consumers may have various and counterintuitive consequences: induction of plant resistance, compensatory growth, and increased resource uptake may affect interactions among plants in ways that cannot be predicted simply by considering biomass lost to consumers. What little we know about TMI among plants suggests that they should not be ignored in plant community theory. Although work to date on the community consequences of phenotypic plasticity has been hampered by experimental constraints, new approaches such as manipulating phenotypes by using signals instead of actual environmental conditions and the use of transgenic plants should allow us to rapidly expand our understanding of the community consequences of plant plasticity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1115-1128
Number of pages14
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2003


  • Allelopathy
  • Chemical defense
  • Clonal morphology
  • Competition
  • Facilitation
  • Herbivory
  • Induced resistance
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Plant interactions
  • Roots


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