A plumber's-eye view of xylem water transport in woody plants

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We present a practical for university-level students aimed at measuring and comparing xylem hydraulic properties of co-existing plant species. After sampling branches of several woody species in the field, their main hydraulic properties were measured using a simple set-up. Hydraulic conductivity (K h) was calculated as the ratio between water flow through a plant segment and the pressure gradient driving the flow. The percent reduction in conductivity due to xylem embolism (i.e. air-filled conduits) was estimated by comparing Kh before and after flushing the measure segments to remove all native embolism. Raw hydraulic conductivity was standardised by cross-sectional wood area or supported leaf area to obtain more meaningful measures of conducting capacity. The results showed differences among study species, particularly between conifers and angiosperms. These differences are briefly discussed in terms of wood anatomy and the general biology of the species. Overall the practical provides a good opportunity for students to appreciate the main aspects of xylem water transport and the constraints it imposes on plant water relations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-141
JournalJournal of Biological Education
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2004


  • Ecophysiology
  • Hydraulic architecture
  • Hydraulic conductivity
  • Plant water transport
  • Xylem embolism


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