Climatic drivers and ecological implications of variation in the time interval between leaf-out and flowering


Leaf-out and flowering in any given species have evolved to occur in a predetermined sequence, with the inter-stage time interval optimized to maximize plant fitness. Although warming-induced advances of both leaf-out and flowering are well documented, it remains unclear whether shifts in these phenological phases differ in magnitudes and whether changes have occurred in the length of the inter-stage intervals. Here, we present an extensive synthesis of warming effects on flower-leaf time intervals, using long-term (1963–2014) and in situ data consisting of 11,858 leaf-out and flowering records for 183 species across China. We found that the timing of both spring phenological events was generally advanced, indicating a dominant impact of forcing conditions compared with chilling. Stable time intervals between leaf-out and flowering prevailed for most of the time series despite increasing temperatures; however, some of the investigated cases featured significant changes in the time intervals. The latter could be explained by differences in the temperature sensitivity (ST) between leaf and flower phenology. Greater ST for flowering than for leaf-out caused flowering times to advance faster than leaf emergence. This shortened the inter-stage intervals in leaf-first species and lengthened them in flower-first species. Variation in the time intervals between leaf-out and flowering events may have far-reaching ecological and evolutionary consequences, with implications for species fitness, intra/ inter-species interactions, and ecosystem structure, function, and stability.