, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 320-358

The Theory of the Rise of Sap in Trees: Some Historical and Conceptual Remarks

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Abstract

The ability of trees to suck water from roots to leaves, sometimes to heights of over a hundred meters, is remarkable given the absence of any mechanical pump. In this study I deal with a number of issues, of both a historical and conceptual nature, in the orthodox Cohesion-Tension (CT) theory of the ascent of sap in trees. The theory relies chiefly on the exceptional cohesive and adhesive properties of water, the structural properties of trees, and the role of evaporation (“transpiration”) from leaves. But it is not the whole story. Plant scientists have been aware since the inception of the theory in the late 19th century that further processes are at work in order to “prime” the trees, the main such process – growth itself – being so obvious to them that it is often omitted from the story. Other factors depend largely on the type of tree, and are not always fully understood. For physicists, in particular, it may be helpful to see the fuller picture, which is what I attempt to provide in nontechnical terms.

Harvey R. Brown is Professor of Philosophy of Physics in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.