1. Soil characteristics influence plant communities in part through water relations. Hypothetically, finer textured soils in arid climates should be associated with more negative plant and soil water potentials during drought, greater resistance of xylem to cavitation, and shallower root systems than coarse soils.
2. These hypotheses were tested by comparing the water relations of Great Basin shrubs growing in sand versus loam soils. The eight study species (Chrysothamnus nauseosus, Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus, Chrysothamnus parryi, Tetradymia glabrata, Atriplex canescens, Atriplex confertifolia, Grayia spinosa and Sarcobatus vermiculatus) varied in typical rooting depth and vegetative phenology.
3. Xylem pressures for a species were, on average, 1·1 MPa more negative in the loam versus the sand site, despite greater precipitation at the loam site. Root xylem at the loam site was, on average, 0·9 MPa more resistant to cavitation than at the sand site for the same species. There was a strong trend for shallower rooting depths at the loam versus the sand site. Within a species, roots were consistently more vulnerable to cavitation than stems, and experienced more cavitation during the growing season.
4. Over most of the summer there was much more cavitation at the loam site than at the sand site. More than 80% loss of xylem conductivity (PLC) was estimated in shallow roots of three species at the loam site by the end of July, with two of the three showing extensive leaf drop and branch mortality. Transpiration rate was negatively correlated with PLC, with a tendency for lower gas-exchange rates in loam versus sand.
5. At the sand site, cavitation resistance was negatively correlated with estimated rooting depth. Drought-deciduous species had the shallowest root systems and greatest resistance to cavitation. In contrast, two species with phreatophytic tendencies were summer-active and were the most vulnerable to cavitation.
6. The cavitation resistance of roots determines the minimum water potential permitting hydraulic contact with soil. Differences in cavitation resistance of roots between desert species may contribute to differences in sensitivity of gas exchange to soil drought, ability to perform hydraulic lift, and response to late summer rain pulses.