Domec, J.C., J.M. Warren, F.C. Meinzer, J.R. Brooks, and R. Coulombe. 2004. Native root xylem embolism and stomatal closure in stands of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine: mitigation by hydraulic redistribution. Oecologia 141:7-16. WED-04-036
Hydraulic redistribution (HR), the passive movement of water via roots from moist to drier portions of the soil, occurs in many ecosystems, influencing both plant and ecosystem-water use. We examined the effects of HR on root hydraulic functioning during drought in young and old-growth Douglas-fir [Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco] and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. Ex Laws) trees growing in four sites. During the 2002 growing season, in situ xylem embolism, water deficit and xylem vulnerability to embolism were measured on medium roots (2-4-mm diameter) collected at 20-30 cm depth. Soil water content and water potentials were monitored concurrently to determine the extent of HR. Additionally, the water potential and stomatal conductance (gs) of upper canopy leaves were measured throughout the growing season. In the site with young Douglas-fir trees, root embolism increased from 20 to 55 percent loss of conductivity (PLC) as the dry season progressed. In young ponderosa pine, root embolism increased from 45 to 75 PLC. In contrast, roots of old-growth Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine trees never experienced more than 30 and 40 PLC, respectively. HR kept soil water potential at 20-30 cm depth above -0.5 MPa in the old-growth Douglas-fir site and -1.8 MPa in the old-growth ponderosa pine site, which significantly reduced loss of shallow root function. In the young ponderosa pine stand, where little HR occurred, the water potential in the upper soil layers fell to about -2.8 MPa, which severely impaired root functioning and limited recovery when the fall rains returned. In both species, daily maximum gs decreased linearly with increasing root PLC, suggesting that root xylem embolism acted in concert with stomata to limit water loss, thereby maintaining minimum leaf water potential above critical values. HR appears to be an important mechanism for maintaining shallow root function during drought and preventing total stomatal closure.