Low Vulnerability to Xylem Embolism in Leaves and Stems of North American Oaks

Robert Paul Skelton, Todd E. Dawson, Sally E. Thompson, Yuzheng Shen, Andrew P. Weitz, David Ackerly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


Although recent findings suggest that xylem embolism represents a significant, drought-induced damaging process in land plants, substantial debate surrounds the capacity of long-vesseled, ring-porous species to resist embolism. We investigated whether recent methodological developments could help resolve this controversy within Quercus, a long-vesseled, ring-porous temperate angiosperm genus, and shed further light on the importance of xylem vulnerability to embolism as an indicator of drought tolerance. We used the optical technique to quantify leaf and stem xylem vulnerability to embolism of eight Quercus species from the Mediterranean-type climate region of California to examine absolute measures of resistance to embolism as well as any potential hydraulic segmentation between tissue types. We demonstrated that our optical assessment reflected flow impairment for a subset of our sample species by quantifying changes in leaf hydraulic conductance in dehydrating branches. Air-entry water potential varied 2-fold in leaves, ranging from -1.7 +/- 0.25 MPa to -3.74 +/- 0.23 MPa, and 4-fold in stems, ranging from -1.17 +/- 0.04 MPa to -4.91 +/- 0.3 MPa. Embolism occurred earlier in leaves than in stems in only one out of eight sample species, and plants always lost turgor before experiencing stem embolism. Our results show that long-vesseled North American Quercus species are more resistant to embolism than previously thought and support the hypothesis that avoiding stem embolism is a critical component of drought tolerance in woody trees. Accurately quantifying xylem vulnerability to embolism is essential for understanding species distributions along aridity gradients and predicting plant mortality during drought.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1066-1077
Number of pages12
JournalPlant Physiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018
Externally publishedYes


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