A modified version of a method that uses positive air pressures to determine the complete cavitation response of a single axis is presented. Application of the method to Betula occidentalis Hook, gave a cavitation response indistinguishable from that obtained by dehydration, thus verifying the technique and providing additional evidence that cavitation under tension occurs by air entry through interconduit pits. Incidentally, this also verified pressure-bomb estimates of xylem tension and confirmed the existence of large (i.e. >0·4 MPa) tensions in xylem, which have been questioned in recent pressure-probe studies. The air injection method was used to investigate variation within and amongst individuals of B. occidentalis. Within an individual, the average cavitation tension increased from 0·66±0·27 MPa in roots (3·9 to 10·7 mm diameter), to 1·17±0·10 MPa in trunks (12 to 16 mm diameter), to 1·36±0·04 MPa in twigs (3·9 to 5 mm diameter). Cavitation tension was negatively correlated with the hydraulically weighted mean of the vessel diameter, and was negatively correlated with the conductance of the xylem per xylem area. Native cavitation was within the range predicted from the measured cavitation response and in situ maximum xylem tensions: roots were significantly cavitated compared with minimal cavitation in trunks and twigs. Leaf turgor pressure declined to zero at the xylem tensions predicted to initiate cavitation in petiole xylem (1·5 MPa). Amongst individuals within B. occidentalis, average cavitation tension in the main axis varied from 0·90 to 1·90 MPa and showed no correlation with vessel diameter. The main axes of juveniles (2–3 years old) had significantly narrower vessel diameters than those of adults, but there was no difference in the average cavitation tension. However, juvenile xylem retained hydraulic conductance to a much higher xylem tension (3·25 MPa) than did adult xylem (2·25 MPa), which could facilitate drought survival during establishment.