Xylem embolism threshold for catastrophic hydraulic failure in angiosperm trees

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Abstract

Hydraulic failure is one of the main causes of tree mortality in conditions of severe drought. Resistance to cavitation is known to be strongly related to drought tolerance and species survival in conifers, but the threshold of water-stress-induced embolism leading to catastrophic xylem dysfunction in angiosperms has been little studied. We investigated the link between drought tolerance, survival and xylem cavitation resistance in five angiosperm tree species known to have contrasting desiccation resistance thresholds. We exposed seedlings in a greenhouse to severe drought to generate extreme water stress. We monitored leaf water potential, total plant water loss rate, leaf transpiration, stomatal conductance and CO2 assimilation rate during drought exposure and after rewatering (recovery phase). The time required for the recovery of 50% of the maximum value of a given ecophysiological variable after rewatering was used to determine the critical water potential corresponding to the threshold beyond which the plant failed to recover. We also investigated the relationship between this potential and stem xylem cavitation resistance, as assessed from vulnerability curves. This minimum recoverable water potential was consistent between ecophysiological variables and varied considerably between species, from −3.4 to −6.0 MPa. This minimum recoverable water potential was strongly correlated with P50 and P88, the pressures inducing 50 and 88% losses of stem hydraulic conductance, respectively. Moreover, the embolism threshold leading to irreversible drought damage was found to be close to 88%, rather than the 50% previously reported for conifers. Hydraulic failure leading to irreversible drought-induced global dysfunction in angiosperm tree species occurred at a very high level of xylem embolism, possibly reflecting the physiological characteristics of their stem water-transport system.

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