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Keywords:

  • leaf-specific hydraulic conductivity;
  • leaf water potential;
  • soil moisture;
  • vapour pressure deficit;
  • vulnerability curve;
  • water transport;
  • xylem cavitation

ABSTRACT

We investigated the hydraulic consequences of a major decrease in root-to-leaf area ratio (AR:AL) caused by nutrient amendments to 15-year-old Pinus taeda L. stands on sandy soil. In theory, such a reduction in AR:AL should compromise the trees’ ability to extract water from drying sand. Under equally high soil moisture, canopy stomatal conductance (GS) of fertilized trees (F) was 50% that of irrigated/fertilized trees (IF), irrigated trees (I), and untreated control trees (C). As predicted from theory, F trees also decreased their stomatal sensitivity to vapour pressure deficit by 50%. The lower GS in F was associated with 50% reduction in leaf-specific hydraulic conductance (KL) compared with other treatments. The lower KL in F was in turn a result of a higher leaf area per sapwood area and a lower specific conductivity (conducting efficiency) of the plant and its root xylem. The root xylem of F trees was also 50% more resistant to cavitation than the other treatments. A transport model predicted that the lower AR:AL in IF trees resulted in a considerably restricted ability to extract water during drought. However, this deficiency was not exposed because irrigation minimized drought. In contrast, the lower AR:AL in F trees caused only a limited restriction in water extraction during drought owing to the more cavitation resistant root xylem in this treatment. In both fertilized treatments, approximate safety margins from predicted hydraulic failure were minimal suggesting increased vulnerability to drought-induced dieback compared with non-fertilized trees. However, IF trees are likely to be so affected even under a mild drought if irrigation is withheld.