Several theories exist about the role of anthocyanins in senescing leaves. To elucidate factors contributing to variation in autumn leaf anthocyanin contents among individual trees, we analysed anthocyanins and other leaf traits in 27 individuals of red maple (Acer rubrum
L.) over two growing seasons in the context of timing of leaf senescence. Red maple usually turns bright red in the autumn, but there is considerable variation among the trees. Leaf autumn anthocyanin contents were consistent between the two years of investigation. Autumn anthocyanin content strongly correlated with degree of chlorophyll degradation mid to late September, early senescing leaves having the highest concentrations of anthocyanins. It also correlated positively with leaf summer chlorophyll content and dry matter content, and negatively with specific leaf area. Time of leaf senescence and anthocyanin contents correlated with soil pH and with canopy openness. We conclude that the importance of anthocyanins in protection of leaf processes during senescence depends on the time of senescence. Rather than prolonging the growing season by enabling a delayed senescence, autumn anthocyanins in red maple in Ontario are important when senescence happens early, possibly due to the higher irradiance and greater danger of oxidative damage early in the season.
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