, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 248-257

Branch sacrifice: cavitation-associated drought adaptation of riparian cottonwoods

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In their native riparian zones (floodplains), Populus deltoides (prairie cottonwood) and P. fremontii (Fremont cottonwood) commonly experience substantial branch die-back. These trees occur in semi-arid areas of North America and unexpectedly given the dry regions, they are exceptionally vulnerable to xylem cavitation, drought-induced air embolism of xylem vessels. We propose that the vulnerability to cavitation and branch die-back are physiologically linked; drought-induced cavitation underlies branch die-back that reduces transpirational demand enabling the remaining shoot to maintain a favorable water balance. This proposal follows field observation along various western North American rivers as precocious branch senescence, the yellowing and death of leaves on particular branches during mid- to late summer, was common for P. deltoides and P. fremontii during hot and dry periods of low stream-flow. Branches displaying precocious senescence were subsequently dead the following year. The proposed association between cavitation, precocious senescence and branch die-back is also supported by experiments involving external pressurization of branches to about 2.5 MPa with a branch collar or through an adjacent cut-branch. The treatments induced xylem cavitation and increased leaf diffusive resistance (stomatal closure) that was followed by leaf senescence and branch death of P. deltoides. P. trichocarpa (black cottonwood) appeared to be less affected by the pressurization treatment and this species as well P. angustifolia (narrowleaf cottonwood) and P. balsamifera (balsam poplar) seldom display the patchy summer branch senescence typical of P. deltoides and P. fremontii. ’Branch sacrifice’ describes this cavitation-associated senescence and branch die-back that may provide a drought adaptation for the prairie and Fremont cottonwoods.

Received: 13 May 1999 / Accepted: 4 November 1999