Experiments were conducted on 1-year-old Douglas fir [Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco] and 2- to 3-month-old alder [Alnus rubra (Bong)] seedlings growing in drying soils to determine the relative influence of root and leaf water status on stomatal conductance (gc). The water status of shoots was manipulated independently of that of the roots using a pressure chamber that enclosed the root system. Pressurizing the chamber increases the turgor of cells in the shoot but not in the roots. Seedling shoots were enclosed in a whole-plant cuvette and transpiration and net photosynthesis rates measured continuously. In both species, stomatal closure in response to soil drying was progressively reversed with increasing pressurization. Responses occurred within minutes of pressurization and measurements almost immediately returned to pre-pressurization levels when the pressure was released. Even in wet soils there was a significant increase in gc with pressurization. In Douglas fir, the stomatal response to pressurization was the same for seedlings grown in dry soils for up to 120 d as for those subjected to drought stress over 40 to 60 d. The stomatal conductance of both Douglas fir and alder seedlings was less sensitive to root chamber pressure at higher vapour pressure deficits (D), and stomatal closure in response to increasing D from 1.04 to 2.06 kPa was only partially reversed by pressurization. Our results are in contrast to those of other studies on herbaceous species, even though we followed the same experimental approach. They suggest that it is not always appropriate to invoke a ‘feedforward’ model of short-term stomatal response to soil drying, whereby chemical messengers from the roots bring about stomatal closure.