3.1. Morphological traits
Leaf area index - Leaf area index (LAI) is a major variable in climatic, ecological and agricultural research. Means comparison revealed that the maximum LAI (5.02) was obtained from the vermicompost-fertilized winter sowing treatment and the minimum (1.89) from the unfertilized spring sowing treatment (Figure 1). The highest LAI (4.08) among the spring-sown plants was related to those fertilized with Thiobacillus. The application of biosulfur (containing Thiobacillus), especially to spring-sown plants, seems to be a strategy to increase P availability in soils via oxidizing sulfur and influencing soil pH, which can improve plant growth15. The leaves of dragon’s heads are another economic part of this medicinal plant. The leaves and green twigs of the pre-flowering plants are consumed as fresh vegetables or as green manure. The expansion of leaf area is important in the sense that it develops plant area and allows the interception of more radiation, and subsequently, this process increases photosynthesis and assimilation, resulting in higher growth rate. The fertilizers used here provided the plants with various amounts of nutrients, which was responsible for the difference among the treatments in LAI.
lant height - According to the results of means comparison, the winter sowing increased the plant height when compared to the spring sowing (76.6 cm versus 70.7 cm). The highest plant heights were related to the treatments of vermicompost (78.2 cm), Thiobacillus (77.9 cm), and manure (77.9 cm), respectively and the lowest (61.9 cm) was related to the control (Figure 2). Since nutrient deficiency is a key factor in dictating plant height, it seems that no-fertilizer treatment exhibited lower growth because of nutrient deficiency whereas all fertilization treatments had a positive effect on the vegetative growth of the plants.
Number of flower cycles per plant - The highest flower cycles per plant (79.8 cycles) were observed in the treatment of vermicompost and the second and third highest were related to the application of Thiobacillus (71 cycles) and manure (65.9 cycles) to the winter-sown plants. On the other hand, the lowest number of flower cycles per plant was related the no-fertilizer treatment (15.4 cycles) and the application of humic acid (19.7 cycles) to the spring-sown plants. Among the fertilizer treatments of the spring-sown plants, the highest number of flower cycles per plant were observed in those fertilized with Thiobacillus (34 cycles), vermicompost (32 cycles), and manure (29 cycles) (Figure 3). It has been reported that the application of organic compounds to soil improves yield, growth, and chemical compounds of peppermint16, , rosemary17 and Sinderitis Montana18.
Number of achenes per plant - The number of achenes per plant and the number of seeds per flower cycle are the determinants of the yield of dragon’s heads19. The highest number of achenes per plant was obtained from the winter-sown plants fertilized with vermicompost (268 achenes), Thiobacillus (233 achenes), and manure (215 achenes), which were different to one another significantly. The lowest number of achenes was observed in the spring-sown plants under no fertilization treatment (51 achenes) and humic acid treatment (65 achenes). However, the spring-sown plants fertilized with Thiobacillus (109 achenes) and vermicompost (104 achenes) exhibited more achenes than their control counterparts, but even these higher number of achenes could not compete with that of the unfertilized winter-sown plants, which produced 143 achenes (Figure 4). In a study on the effect of high-input (urea and triple superphosphate) and low-input (Nitroxin, Barvar-2 phosphate, and biosulfate) fertilization system along with the effect of irrigation frequency on the morphological traits of dragon’s heads, it was reported that these factors affected the number of achenes significantly and the high-input system produced more achenes20,21 (34 achenes), also, reported that in the monocropping system of dragon’s heads, the biofertilizer-treated plants produced more achenes per plant than the unfertilized plants. An effective way to enhance rainfall use efficiency is to make spring rainfalls coincide with the initiation of vegetative and reproductive growth by selecting a proper sowing date22 .
Number of seeds per plant - The simple and interactive effect of the fertilizer source and sowing season was significant (p < 0.01) on the number of seeds per plant (Table 4). According to means comparison (Figure 5), the fertilizer treatments did not differ to one another significantly in the spring sowing, and their seed number per plant (85 seeds) was the lowest. But, these treatments in the winter sowing differed significantly. The highest number of seeds per plant in the winter sowing was obtained from the NPK fertilizer (181 seeds) and manure (175 seeds). The next ranks were related to the application of vermicompost (162 seeds) and Thiobacillus (152 seeds) followed by humic acid (131 seeds) and no-fertilization treatment (126 seeds). To explain the increase in the seed number per plant19, argue that in a treatment in which soil moisture is appropriate, chlorophyll growth and then the number of achenes per plant will increase and this, in turn, will enhance the number of seeds per plant. Consequently, a severe competition will initiate between the filling grains that are strong sinks for photosynthate absorption and thereby smaller light-weight seeds will be produced.
Thousand-seed weight - It is evident that the highest 1000-seed weights were related to the application of Thiobacillus or vermicompost to the winter-sown plants (5.68 and 5.66 g, respectively) and the lowest was 2.31 g observed in the unfertilized spring-sown plants (Figure 6). Also, the application of Thiobacillus to the spring-sown plants exhibited a 1000-seed weight of as high as 4.48 g. In the winter sowing, the treatment of NPK fertilizer (3.85 g) had lower 1000-seed weight than the control (4.21 g), but their difference was insignificant. This is related to the fact that the application of NPK fertilizer produced the highest number of seeds per plant and it is obvious that when the number of seeds increases, their weight decreases due to competition. Based on the results, the higher seed yield was probably due to the positive effect of vermicompost and winter sowing on 1000-seed weight. The application of biofertilizers in the study of21 enhanced the yield and yield components (e.g. 1000-seed weight, the number of pods per plant, the number of seeds per pod, the number of auxiliary branches, and plant height) of dragon’s heads and peas so that they recommended the application of biofertilizers in the intercropping system of this plant. A sowing date that has recently been considered is winter sowing in which the sowing date is of crucial importance because the seeds should be sown when the air and soil are cold enough to prevent germination. Winter sowing aims at maximizing the use of rainfall, especially in regions where no land preparation is possible in springs due to rainfalls23.
Number of auxiliary branches - As depicted in Figure 7, the winter-sown plants showed the highest number of auxiliary branches when they were fertilized with vermicompost (6.9 branches) or Thiobacillus (6.4 branches). In contrast, the spring-sown plants exhibited the lowest number of auxiliary branches when they were not fertilized (2.4 branches) or were fertilized with humic acid (2.9 branches). The highest number of auxiliary branches in the spring-sown plants was related to those treated with Thiobacillus (5.6 branches). The significant difference of the fertilization treatments with the control in both seasons implies that the application of fertilizer facilitates nutrient access for plants and help them establish better. In a study on the effect of time on some traits of dragon’s heads24, concluded that the number of auxiliary branches was significantly higher in the early sowing than in the late sowing. Our results about the effect of fertilization on the number of auxiliary branches of the dragon’s heads are consistent with the results of25,26, for Silybum marianum L., for fennel, and27 for lentil, who have all expressed the significant effect of biofertilizers on the number of main and auxiliary branches of the studied plant species.
Plant diameter - The highest plant diameter was 9.0 cm observed in the winter-sown plants that were treated with vermicompost. The next highest plant diameters were related the NPK-fertilized winter-sown plants (8.05 cm), manure-fertilized winter-sown plants (7.89 cm), and Thiobacillus-treated winter-sown plants (7.88 cm), which were all ranked in the same statistical group. The application of humic acid and no-fertilizer to the winter sowing resulted in the lowest plant diameters of 6.79 and 6.28 cm, respectively. All fertilization treatments in the spring sowing showed the minimum stem diameter and were ranked in the same statistical group (Figure 8). Since stems are a sink of assimilates, the improvement of nutritional conditions by consuming fertilizers increased assimilates, resulting in the enhancement of stem diameter. The failure of humic matter in improving plant growth has been reported in several research works. For example, a study on oregano reported that the plants treated with humic matter produced a stem diameter even lower than the control28. In their investigation of the effect of biofertilizers on the quantitative yield and morphological traits of dragon’s heads exposed to severe water stress29, recommended the application of Barvar-2 phosphate biofertilizer under optimal irrigation conditions to achieve the highest number of pods per plant, seeds per plant, seed yield, biological yield, and stem diameter.
3.2. Nutrient uptake
Despite the insignificant effect of the fertilizer on N content, means comparison by Duncan’s multiple range test grouped the treatments as depicted in Figure 9. Among the studied six fertilization treatments, the application of manure and vermicompost produced the highest and no-fertilization treatment produced the lowest N contents (2.67%, 2.53%, and 2.12%, respectively). The remaining treatments were in between these two extremes and did not influence N content considerably. In terms of phosphorus (P) content, the simple effect of the sowing season and fertilizer type was significant (p < 0.01), but their interaction was insignificant (Table 5). Based on the results of means comparison for this nutrient, the winter sowing increased P content versus the spring sowing (0.73% versus 0.60%). Also, among the fertilization treatments, Thiobacillus was related to the highest P content of 0.76% and the other fertilizers did not differ from no-fertilizer application (0.60%) significantly, so they were all placed in the same statistical group. Therefore, in spite of the significant impact, there was not a remarkable difference between the fertilization treatments (Figure 10).
Means comparison for the simple effects (Figure 11) showed higher Ca content in the winter sowing (7.12%) than in the spring sowing (6.54%). Also, the treatment of humic acid (7.95%) and manure (7.04%) were related to the highest and the no-fertilizer treatment (6.03%) was related to the lowest Ca content. The winter sowing had a slightly but significantly higher Na content than the spring sowing (4.74% versus 4.33%). Furthermore, the application of manure was related to the highest Na content (7.06%), but the lowest was related to the no-fertilizer treatment (4.01%). The other fertilizers had almost as high Na content as the control (Figure 12).
It was observed that the application of manure increased the uptake of nutrients. Manure increases soil cation exchange capacity, soil nutrient contents, nutrient availability to plants, nitrogen balance, soil organic matter and humus content, and soil granulation, thereby increasing its porosity and improving its structure30. For these reasons, the growth and expansion of root systems are increased in soils treated with organic fertilizers where plants can grow and absorb nutrients well under the appropriate physical and chemical conditions created by the organic fertilizers31. Likewise32, reported for coriander that the application of different fertilizers including manure enhanced the uptake of N, P, K, and Na significantly as compared to the no-fertilizer treatment. Although the phenotypic representation of traits is influenced by genetics, environment, and their interaction33, these influences may vary with plant and trait.
3.3. The analysis of variance of morphological and yield traits
The results of the analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated that the effects of fertilization and sowing date were significant on leaf area index (LAI) and plant height (P <0.01), whereas the interactive effect of these factors was significant (P <0.01) on LAI but insignificant for the plant height of the dragon’s heads (Table 2).
The interactive effects of the sowing season and fertilizer were significant (P <0.01) on the number of flower cycles per plant, number of achenes per plant, number of seeds per plant, 1000-seed weight, number of auxiliary branches and the plant diameter (Table 3). The results of ANOVA for the number of flower cycles per plant, the number of achenes per plant, number of seeds per plant, 1000-seed weight, and plant diameter indicated that the effects of the sowing season and fertilizer were significant (P <0.01). Additionally, the interaction of studied effects was significant on the number of auxiliary branches at P <0.05 (Table 3).
According to the results of ANOVA it is evident that the effects of the sowing season and fertilizer and their interaction were statistically insignificant for the uptake of N and K, whereas both factors were significant to phosphorus uptake (P <0.01), unlike their interaction (Table 4). The data on Ca content revealed that this trait was influenced by the sowing season at the P <0.05 level and by the fertilizer type at the P <0.01 level, but their interaction was insignificant for this trait. The two sowing seasons and six fertilizer treatments differed significantly (P <0.05) in Na content. Like the other studied elements, the interaction of sowing season × fertilizer was insignificant for this trait. The insignificant effect of sowing season and fertilizer on the uptake of some elements means that these traits were not influenced by sowing season and fertilizer type and there was not a specific trend in the variations of this trait. Even in elements in which the impacts were significant, the differences were not considerable among the treatments. It can, thus, be concluded that the uptake of nutrients is affected by sowing season and fertilizer to a lesser extent.