The leaf is one of the most drought-sensitive plant organs. Investigating how leaf traits change and their trade-off growth during a drought would contribute to developing targeted drought-resistance measures. We investigated changes in five key maize leaf traits (leaf area, dry mass, effective number, water content, and specific weight) and their trade-off growth based on a drought simulation experiment. We also developed an indicator (0, 1) to quantitatively evaluate drought severity. The results showed a trade-off growth between different leaf traits of maize plants under drought conditions. Maize maintained relatively high leaf water content to maintain high leaf metabolic activity until drought severity was greater than 0. When drought severity was (0, 0.48), maize tended to adopt rapid growth strategy by maintaining regular leafing intensity and investing more energy into leaf area rather than specific leaf weight so that more energy could be absorbed. When the drought severity exceeded 0.48, maize conserved its resources for survival by maintaining relatively lower metabolic activity and thicker leaves to minimize water loss. The results provide an insight into the acclimation strategies of maize under drought, and contribute to targeted drought prevention and relief measures to reduce drought-induced risks to food security.
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