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Keywords:

  • Hydraulic conductivity;
  • root shrinkage;
  • root-soil interface;
  • root water uptake

SUMMARY

To investigate the extent and size of root-soil air gaps that develop during soil drying, resin casts of roots of the desert succulent Agave deserti Engelm. were made in situ for container-grown plants and in the field. Plants that were draughted in containers for 7 and 14 d had 24 and 34% root shrinkage, respectively, leading to root-soil air gaps that would reduce the hydraulic conductivity at the root-soil interface by a factor of about 5. When containers were vibrated during drought, root-soil air gaps were greatly diminished, and the predicted conductivity at the interface was similar to that of the control (moist soil). For plants in the field (4 and 6 wk after the last rainfall), root shrinkage was greater than for container-grown plants, but root-soil contact on the root periphery was greater, which led to a higher predicted hydraulic conductivity at the root-soil interface. To test the hypothesis that root-soil air gaps would help to limit water efflux from roots in drying soil, the water potentials of the soil, root, and shoot of plants from vibrated containers (with gaps eliminated or reduced) and non-vibrated containers were compared. The soil water potential was lower for vibrated containers after 14 d of drought, suggesting more rapid depletion of soil water due to better root-soil contact, and the root water potential was lower as well, suggesting greater water loss by roots in the absence of root-soil air gaps. Thus, air gaps could benefit A. deserti by helping to maintain a higher root water potential in the early stages of drought and later by limiting root water loss at the root-soil interface when the water potential exceeds that of the soil.