Sources of variability in canopy reflectance and the convergent properties of plants


How plants interact with sunlight is central to the existence of life and provides a window to the functioning of ecosystems. Although the basic properties of leaf spectra have been known for decades, interpreting canopy‐level spectra is more challenging because leaf‐level effects are complicated by a host of stem‐ and canopy‐level traits. Progress has been made through empirical analyses and models, although both methods have been hampered by a series of persistent challenges. Here, I review current understanding of plant spectral properties with respect to sources of uncertainty at leaf to canopy scales. I also discuss the role of evolutionary convergence in plant functioning and the difficulty of identifying individual properties among a suite of interrelated traits. A pattern that emerges suggests a synergy among the scattering effects of leaf‐, stem‐ and canopy‐level traits that becomes most apparent in the near‐infrared (NIR) region. This explains the widespread and well‐known importance of the NIR region in vegetation remote sensing, but presents an interesting paradox that has yet to be fully explored: that we can often gain more insight about the functioning of plants by examining wavelengths that are not used in photosynthesis than by examining those that are.


Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

New Phytologist



Document Type



© 2010 The Author. New Phytologist