Variation in xylem vulnerability to cavitation shapes the photosynthetic legacy of drought

Tonet V, Brodribb T and Bourbia I

Plant, Cell & Environment


Increased drought conditions impact tree health, negatively disrupting plant water transport which, in turn, affects plant growth and survival. Persistent drought legacy effects have been documented in many diverse ecosystems, yet we still lack a mechanistic understanding of the physiological processes limiting tree recovery after drought. Tackling this question, we exposed saplings of a common Australian evergreen tree (Eucalyptus viminalis) to a cycle of drought and rewatering, seeking evidence for a link between the spread of xylem cavitation within the crown and the degree of photosynthetic recovery postdrought. Individual leaves experiencing >35% vein cavitation quickly died but this did not translate to a rapid overall canopy damage. Rather, whole canopies showed a gradual decline in mean postdrought gas exchange rates as water stress increased. This gradual loss of canopy function postdrought was due to a significant variation in cavitation vulnerability of leaves within canopies leading to diversity in the capacity of leaves within a single crown to recover function after drought. These results from the evergreen E. viminalis emphasise the importance of within-crown variation in xylem vulnerability as a central character regulating the dynamics of canopy death and the severity of drought legacy through time.