Linking fine root morphology, hydraulic functioning and shade tolerance of trees

Marcin Zadworny, Louise H. Comas, David M. Eissenstat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Background and Aims Understanding root traits and their trade-off with other plant processes is important for understanding plant functioning in natural ecosystems as well as agricultural systems. The aim of the present study was to determine the relationship between root morphology and the hydraulic characteristics of several orders of fine roots (<2 mm) for species differing in shade tolerance (low, moderate and high). Methods The morphological, anatomical and hydraulic traits across five distal root orders were measured in species with different levels of shade tolerance and life history strategies. The species studied were Acer negundo, Acer rubrum, Acer saccharum, Betula alleghaniensis, Betula lenta, Quercus alba, Quercus rubra, Pinus strobus and Pinus virginiana. Key Results Compared with shade-tolerant species, shade-intolerant species produced thinner absorptive roots with smaller xylem lumen diameters and underwent secondary development less frequently, suggesting that they had shorter life spans. Shade-tolerant species had greater root specific hydraulic conductance among these roots due to having larger diameter xylems, although these roots had a lower calculated critical tension for conduit collapse. In addition, shade-intolerant species exhibited greater variation in hydraulic conductance across different root growth rings in woody transport roots of the same root order as compared with shade-tolerant species. Conclusions Plant growth strategies were extended to include root hydraulic properties. It was found that shade intolerance in trees was associated with conservative root hydraulics but greater plasticity in number of xylem conduits and hydraulic conductance. Root traits of shade-intolerant species were consistent with the ability to proliferate roots quickly for rapid water uptake needed to support rapid shoot growth, while minimizing risk in uncertain environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)239-250
Number of pages12
JournalAnnals of botany
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Plant Science


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