1. In warm arid and semiarid environments, the accumulation of clay minerals produces increasingly well developed soil horizons with the passage of time. Differences in the strength of development of two prominent soil horizons, silt- and clay-rich surface vesicular (Av), and clay-enriched subsurface argillic (Bt), may strongly influence the amount and seasonal continuity of plant-available water and the physiological activity of long-lived desert shrubs. Three sites were selected on an alluvial piedmont (bajada) in the Mojave Desert that varied in surface and subsurface horizon development. The first site, a deep deposit of stabilized dune sand, entirely lacked soil horizon development. The second site had a well developed surface stone pavement and underlying Av horizon, but lacked an argillic horizon in the sandy subsoil. The third had a well developed surface pavement and Av horizon, and a deeper, well developed clay-rich argillic horizon. Seasonal water potential and gas-exchange responses of the evergreen desert shrub Larrea tridentata[DC.] Cov., and volumetric soil water content (θ), were measured monthly in 1996 on these three soils in order to test the hypothesis that desert pavements, Av and subsurface Bt horizons differentially affect the effectiveness and utilization of seasonal precipitation.
2. Predawn and midday water potentials (ψpd and ψmid), net photosynthetic rates (Anet), and stomatal conductances (gs) in L. tridentata were highest in the deep, sandy dune soils lacking horizons that could restrict surface and subsurface infiltration. Plants growing in these soils also showed no physiological response to summer precipitation events. Following a single large precipitation event during the growing season (3·8 cm), the water potentials, Anet and gs in L. tridentata were similar in the first (sand dune) and second (pavement and Av horizon) sites. However, plant performance on these soil surfaces showed marked seasonal declines, and did not respond to a small pulse of summer rainfall. Plants growing at the third site (older soils with strongly developed pavement, Av and Bt horizons) had very low gas-exchange rates and water potentials. However, following convectional summer thunderstorms L. tridentata showed improved water relations and gas exchange in these soils.
3. Midday water potentials were frequently anomalously higher than predawn water potentials, up to +6 MPa late in the growing season, especially on soil surfaces with well developed soil horizons. This anomaly was due to seasonal decreases in ψpd accompanied by invariant midday ψ. In general, ψpd was correlated with θ across the depths measured.
4. Correlations between ψmid with θ at 35 cm increased dramatically with increasing Bt horizon development, suggesting that seasonal ψmid may have been due to the vertical translocation of water (‘hydraulic lift’).
5. Our results show that subsurface and surficial soil horizon development differentially affects the seasonal availability of water for desert plants. During wetter parts of the season, subsurface horizons limit the degree of water availability, while surface soil characteristics have the greatest influence on the effectiveness of summer precipitation. These findings suggest that the effectiveness of climatic precipitation and attendant plant utilization of water resources in warm desert systems may depend on the physical soil condition.