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J Exp Bot. 2013 May;64(8):2321-32. doi: 10.1093/jxb/ert090. Epub 2013 Apr 12.

Investigating xylem embolism formation, refilling and water storage in tree trunks using frequency domain reflectometry.

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Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Boston, MA 02131, USA.


Trunks of large trees play an important role in whole-plant water balance but technical difficulties have limited most hydraulic research to small stems, leaves, and roots. To investigate the dynamics of water-related processes in tree trunks, such as winter embolism refilling, xylem hydraulic vulnerability, and water storage, volumetric water content (VWC) in the main stem was monitored continuously using frequency domain moisture sensors in adult Betula papyrifera trees from early spring through the beginning of winter. An air injection technique was developed to estimate hydraulic vulnerability of the trunk xylem. Trunk VWC increased in early spring and again in autumn, concurrently with root pressure during both seasons. Diurnal fluctuations and a gradual decrease in trunk VWC through the growing season were observed, which, in combination with VWC increase after significant rainfall events and depletion during periods of high water demand, indicate the importance of stem water storage in both short- and long-term water balance. Comparisons between the trunk air injection results and conventional branch hydraulic vulnerability curves showed no evidence of 'vulnerability segmentation' between the main stem and small branches in B. papyrifera. Measurements of VWC following air injection, together with evidence from air injection and xylem dye perfusion, indicate that embolized vessels can be refilled by active root pressure but not in the absence of root pressure. The precise, continuous, and non-destructive measurement of wood water content using frequency domain sensors provides an ideal way to probe many hydraulic processes in large tree trunks that are otherwise difficult to investigate.


Cavitation; freeze–thaw stress; root pressure; water relations; water storage; winter embolism refilling; xylem hydraulic vulnerability.

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