Highlights: Hybrid aspen and silver birch trees grew more slowly under increased air humidity conditions and had higher concentrations of N and P and a lower K to N ratio in stemwood; Minor species-specific changes were detected in stemwood concentrations of cellulose and hemicellulose; Density, calorific value and concentrations of lignin and ash in stemwood were not affected by elevated humidity.
We studied the physicochemical properties of stemwood in saplings of silver birch (Betula pendula Roth) and hybrid aspen (Populus tremula L. × P. tremuloides Michx.), grown for four years under artificially elevated relative air humidity (on average by 7%) in field conditions, using the Free Air Humidity Manipulation (FAHM) research facility in Estonia. Altogether 91 sample trees from three experimental plots with manipulated air humidity and from three control plots were cut in the dormant season and sampled for the analysis of cellulose, hemicellulose, acid detergent lignin, macronutrients (N, P, K), ash content, density, and calorific value of wood. The analysed trees grew significantly more slowly under elevated humidity conditions, with a more pronounced effect on aspens. Significantly higher concentrations of N and P were observed in the stemwood of both aspens and birches grown under elevated humidity. This could be the result of a change in the content of living parenchyma cells and/or enhanced retranslocation of nutrients into wood parenchyma. Additionally, humidification resulted in a significantly higher concentration of cellulose and a lower concentration of hemicellulose in aspen stemwood, and in significantly lower concentrations of cellulose and K in birch stemwood. Elevated humidity did not affect lignin concentration, ash content, basic density and calorific value of stemwood. Results from the FAHM experiment suggest that the increasing air humidity accompanying global warming at northern latitudes will affect the growth and functioning of deciduous trees and forests, with obvious consequences also for forest management and industry.