Sitka spruce [Picea sitchensis (Bong.) Carr.] plants were grown under controlled conditions in specially designed boxes in which the plagiogravitropic lateral roots grew out from moist peat into an air space at one side. In one treatment the air was saturated with water vapour. In the other a linear horizontal gradient of water vapour pressure was maintained between the vertical peat surface and a porous membrane made from black cloth. Near the peat surface the vapour pressure gradient was equivalent to a soil water-potential gradient of about 0.48 MPa mm−1.
The angles of the roots before and after emergence from the peat were measured in different planes. In the saturated air treatment there was no significant change of angle after emergence but roots which emerged into the air with the humidity gradient grew more slowly and showed a marked change of direction. This deflection had two components; there was some tendency for the roots to be attracted to the moist peat surface (hydrotropism), and there was also a downward component (gravitropism). Mean deviation from the angle of emergence which would have resulted from a hydrotropic response alone was 58°, while deviation from the true gravitropic position was only 31°. Therefore under the conditions of the experiment the gravitropic response was considerably stronger than the hydrotropic one.
The implications of these results are discussed for the growth of roots in soils, where water potential gradients generally do not seem to be sufficient to cause hydroptropic curvature. However, there was an enhanced gravitropic response of the tips of lateral roots subject to water stress and this may help control the orientation of roots near the soil surface.