Under changing climatic conditions, drought may become a critical constraint for trees in urban areas, particularly at roadsides and highly paved squares. As healthy urban trees have proven to be an important mitigation and adaptation tool for climate change as well as a significant provider of ecosystem services, there is a need for planting species and cultivars capable of coping with the limited water supply. However, data on species’ and cultivars’ response to drought, particularly their water supplying root systems remains rare. To consider the whole plant responses to drought situations, we studied the growth and phenology of three frequently planted tree species and cultivars with a diameter of 5–6 cm during a one-year rainfall exclusion experiment conducted in a nursery field as well as the dry biomass of the compartments branch, stem, and root after excavation. Our results revealed that species’ and cultivars’ performance were linked to their within-plant carbon partitioning. A high tolerance to drought was noted for Acer campestre
, with a particularly high ratio of root:shoot ratio, which made it presumably less susceptible to droughts. Tilia cordata
‘Greenspire’ was highly affected by the reduced water availability visible through prematurely leaf senescence, while Carpinus betulus
‘Fastigiata’ suffered from losing a considerable part of its root biomass, which resulted in the lowest root:shoot ratio of all species and cultivars. This study demonstrated the need for investigating the reaction patterns of species and cultivars by considering both the above-and the below-ground plant parts. We recommend that, for future tree plantings at harsh and challenging urban sites, an important selection criterion should be species’ and cultivars’ capability to develop and retain strong and dense root systems even under limited water supply, as that is believed to be an important trait for drought tolerance.
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