- •Severe drought may increase physiological stress on long-lived woody vegetation, occasionally leading to mortality of overstory trees. Little is known about the factors determining tree survival and subsequent recovery after drought.
- •We used structural equation modeling to analyse the recovery of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) trees 4 yr after an extreme drought episode occurred in 2004–2005 in north-east Spain. Measured variables included the amount of green foliage, carbon reserves in the stem, mistletoe (Viscum album) infection, needle physiological performance and stem radial growth before, during and after the drought event.
- •The amount of green leaves and the levels of carbon reserves were related to the impact of drought on radial growth, and mutually correlated. However, our most likely path model indicated that current depletion of carbon reserves was a result of reduced photosynthetic tissue. This relationship potentially constitutes a feedback limiting tree recovery. In addition, mistletoe infection reduced leaf nitrogen content, negatively affecting growth. Finally, successive surveys in 2009–2010 showed a direct association between carbon reserves depletion and drought-induced mortality.
- •Severe drought events may induce long-term physiological disorders associated with canopy defoliation and depletion of carbon reserves, leading to prolonged recovery of surviving individuals and, eventually, to delayed tree death.