Background and Aims The combination of rising sea levels and increased storm frequency and intensity is predicted to increase the severity of oceanic storm surge events and the impact of flooding on coastal ecosystems globally. Understanding how plant communities respond to this threat necessitates experiments involving plant immersion in saline water, but logistical issues and natural variation in seawater composition mean that pure NaCl solutions or marine aquarium salts (MS) are widely used. Nonetheless, their comparative impact on plant ecophysiology, and thus relevance to understanding real-world flooding scenarios, is unknown. Methods In the first of two experiments, we examined how six ecophysiological responses in white clover (Trifolium repens) varied when plants were subjected to five different inundation treatments: deionized water, natural seawater, an MS solution and two NaCl solutions. In a second experiment, we examined how immersion in deionized water, MS solution and natural seawater affected six European perennial herb species, three native to Spanish sand dunes, and three from British coastal grasslands. Results The two NaCl solutions induced exceptional Trifolium mortality, but responses varied little between MS and seawater treatments. In the second experiment, although leaf tissue necrosis and proline concentrations increased, and growth decreased compared with untreated controls, only one response in one species varied between MS and seawater treatments. Chemical speciation modelling revealed major variation in free Na+ and Cl− between NaCl solutions and seawater, but minor differences between MS and seawater. Conclusions We show that NaCl solutions are unsuitable surrogates to investigate plant response to elevated environmental salinity. Although responses to natural seawater and MS were consistent within species, there was notable between-species variation. Consequently, the first steps to elucidating how these species-specific responses influence coastal plant community recovery following storm surge can likely be achieved using commercial marine aquarium salts as substitutes for natural seawater.



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Annals of Botany



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School of Biological and Marine Sciences