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The calcifuge habit of plants is commonly explained in terms of high soil pH and its effects on nutrient availability, particularly that of phosphorus (P). However, most Proteaceae that occur on nutrient-impoverished soils in south-western Australia are calcifuge, despite their ability to produce cluster-roots, which effectively mobilize soil P and micronutrients. We hypothesize that the mechanism explaining the calcifuge habit in Proteaceae is their sensitivity to P and calcium (Ca), and that soil-indifferent species are less sensitive to the interaction of these nutrients. In this study, we analyzed growth, gas-exchange rate, and chlorophyll fluorescence of two soil-indifferent and four calcifuge Hakea and Banksia (Proteaceae) species from south-western Australia, across a range of P and Ca concentrations in hydroponic solution. We observed Ca-enhanced P toxicity in all analyzed species, but to different extents depending on distribution type and genus. Increasing P supply enhanced plant growth, leaf biomass, and photosynthetic rates of soil-indifferent species in a pattern largely independent of Ca supply. In contrast, positive physiological responses to increasing [P] in calcifuges were either absent or limited to low Ca supply, indicating that calcifuges were far more sensitive to Ca-enhanced P toxicity. In calcifuge Hakeas, we attributed this to higher leaf [P], and in calcifuge Banksias to lower leaf zinc concentration. These differences help to explain these species' contrasting sensitivity to Ca-enhanced P toxicity and account for the exclusion of most Proteaceae from calcareous habitats. We surmise that Ca-enhanced P toxicity is a major factor explaining the calcifuge habit of Proteaceae, and, possibly, other P-sensitive plants.
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