Trade-offs between leaf hydraulic capacity and drought vulnerability: morpho-anatomical bases, carbon costs and ecological consequences


Author for correspondence:

Andrea Nardini

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  • Leaf hydraulic conductance (Kleaf) and vulnerability constrain plant productivity, but no clear trade-off between these fundamental functional traits has emerged in previous studies.
  • We measured Kleaf on a leaf area (Kleaf_area) and mass basis (Kleaf_mass) in six woody angiosperms, and compared these values with species’ distribution and leaf tolerance to dehydration in terms of P50, that is, the leaf water potential inducing 50% loss of Kleaf. We also measured several morphological and anatomical traits associated with carbon investment in leaf construction and water transport efficiency.
  • Clear relationships emerged between Kleaf_mass, P50, and leaf mass per unit area (LMA), suggesting that increased tolerance to hydraulic dysfunction implies increased carbon costs for leaf construction and water use. Low P50 values were associated with narrower and denser vein conduits, increased thickness of conduit walls, and increased vein density. This, in turn, was associated with reduced leaf surface area.
  • Leaf P50 was closely associated with plants’ distribution over a narrow geographical range, suggesting that this parameter contributes to shaping vegetation features. Our data also highlight the carbon costs likely to be associated with increased leaf tolerance to hydraulic dysfunction, which confers on some species the ability to thrive under reduced water availability but decreases their competitiveness in high-resource habitats.