Salt marshes have the potential to intercept nitrogen that could otherwise impact coastal water quality. Salt marsh plants play a central role in nutrient interception by retaining N in above- and belowground tissues. We examine N uptake and allocation in two dominant salt marsh plants, short-form Spartina alterniflora and Distichlis spicata. Nitrogen uptake was measured using 15N tracer experiments conducted over a four-week period, supplemented with stem-level growth rates, primary production, and microbial denitrification assays. By varying experiment duration, we identify the importance of a rarely-measured aspect of experimental design in 15N tracer studies. Experiment duration had a greater impact on quantitative N uptake estimates than primary production or stem-level relative growth rates. Rapid initial scavenging of added 15N caused apparent nitrogen uptake rates to decline by a factor of two as experiment duration increased from one week to one month, although each experiment shared the qualitative conclusion that Distichlis roots scavenged N approximately twice as rapidly as Spartina. We estimate total N uptake into above- and belowground tissues as 154 and 277 mg N·m−2·d−1 for Spartina and Distichlis, respectively. Driving this pattern were higher N content in Distichlis leaves and belowground tissue and strong differences in primary production; Spartina and Distichlis produced 8.8 and 14.7 g biomass·m−2·d−1. Denitrification potentials were similar in sediment associated with both species, but the strong species-specific difference in N uptake suggests that Distichlis-dominated marshes are likely to intercept more N from coastal waters than are short-form Spartina marshes.
A data article in Data in Brief accompanies this manuscript. Data and source code are available on CRAN within R Package NitrogenUptake2016.