Great Basin Naturalist


Despite the profusion of light in deserts, morphological adaptations to increase light interception are common among desert plants. We studied branch orientation and related physiological parameters in the Mojave Desert Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia (Agavaceae). Azimuth and inclination were measured on all leaf rosettes of 44 Y. brevifolia trees. Interception of solar radiation was modeled for leaves in hypothetical rosettes facing due south and due north in December, March, and June. Carbon isotope discrimination, nitrogen content, and conductance of water vapor were measured in leaves from north- and south-facing rosettes. Rosette azimuths were nonrandom; rosettes predominantly faced southeast. North-facing rosettes were more steeply inclined than those facing south. The preponderance of south-facing rosettes reduces self-shading and increases interception of solar radiation during the winter-spring growth period. Stomatal conductance was higher for leaves in south-facing than in north-facing rosettes. Nevertheless, discrimination against 13C was less in leaves of south-facing rosettes, indicating that average intercellular CO2 concentration was also lower. South-facing whorls had higher leaf nitrogen content. Greater allocation of nitrogen to leaves in south-facing whorls probably results in those leaves having a greater photosynthetic capacity than their north-facing counterparts. Orientation of rosettes to increase interception of sunlight during the period most favorable for photosynthesis, coupled with allocation of nutrients to maintain a higher photosynthetic capacity in those rosettes, should significantly increase whole-plan carbon gain in Y. brevifolia.