Silicon (Si) enhances maize resistance to drought. While previous studies have mainly focused on the seedling stage, the mediation of drought stress by Si imposed at the vegetative and reproductive stages has been rarely investigated. A soil-column experiment was thus conducted under a rainproof shelter to quantify the effect s of Si application on the physiological and agronomic responses of maize to drought stress imposed at the 6-leaf (D-V6), 12-leaf (D-V12), and blister (D-R2) stages. The observed parameters included plant growth, photosynthesis, osmolytes, antioxidant activity, and grain yield. The results showed that drought stress strongly decreased the leaf area, leaf water content, photosynthetic rate, chlorophyll content, and antioxidant activity (superoxide dismutase (SOD), peroxidase (POD), and catalase (CAT)) and markedly increased lipid peroxidation. D-V6, D-V12, and D-R2 decreased grain yields by 12.9%, 28.9%, and 44.8%, respectively, compared to the well-watered treatment (CK). However, Si application markedly increased leaf area, chlorophyll content, photosynthetic rate, osmolyte content, and enzymatic antioxidant activities (SOD, POD, and CAT), and decreased malondialdehyde (MDA) and superoxide radical accumulation, ultimately improving maize yields by 12.4%, 69.8%, and 80.8%, respectively, compared to the non-Si treated plants under drought stress at the V6, V12, and R2 stages. Furthermore, maize yields had a significant positive correlation with chlorophyll content and SOD and POD activity during the three stages. Our findings suggest that Si-induced changes in chlorophyll content and antioxidant activity might constitute important mechanisms for mitigating drought stress. In conclusion, this study provides physico-biochemical evidence for the beneficial role of Si in alleviating drought-induced yield reduction in maize, particularly during the late vegetative or early reproductive stages. Thus, Si application constitutes an effective approach for improving maize yield in rain-fed agricultural systems.
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