Little is known of the mechanisms employed by woody plants to acquire key resources such as water and nutrients in hyperarid environments. For phreatophytic plants, deep roots are necessary to access the water table, but given that most nutrients in many desert ecosystems are stored in the upper soil layers, viable shallow roots may be equally necessary for nutrient uptake. We sought to better understand the interaction between water and nutrient uptake from soil horizons differing in the relative abundance of these resources. To this end, we monitored plant water and nutrient status before and after applying flood irrigation to four phreatophytic perennial plant species in the remote hyperarid Taklamakan desert in western China. Sap flow in the roots of five plants of the perennial desert species Alhagi sparsifolia Shap., Karelina caspica (Pall.) Less., Calligonum caput medusea Schrenk, and Eleagnus angustifolia Hill. was monitored using the heat ratio method (HRM). Additionally we measured predawn and midday water potential, foliar nitrate reductase activity (NRA), xylem sap nutrient concentration and the concentration of total solutes in the leaves before, 12 and 96 h after flooding to investigate possible short-term physiological effects on water and nutrient status. Rates of sap flow measured during the day and at night in the absence of transpiration did not change after flooding. Moderately high rates of sap flow (HRM heat pulse velocity, 5–25 cm h−1) detected during the day in soils that had a near zero water content at the surface indicated that all species had contact to groundwater. There was no evidence from sap flow data that plants had utilised flood water to increase maximum rates of transpiration under similar climatic conditions, and there was no evidence of a process to improve the efficiency of water or nutrient uptake, such as hydraulic redistribution (i.e. the passive movement of water from moist soil to very dry soil via roots). Measurements of plant water status, xylem sap nutrient status, foliar NRA and the concentration of osmotically active substances were also unaffected by flood irrigation. Our results clearly show that groundwater acts as the major source of water and nutrients for these plants. The inability of plants to utilise abundant surface soil–water or newly available nutrients following irrigation was attributed to the absence of fine roots in the topsoil layer.
hydraulic redistribution phreatophytes Taklamakan desert trees water uptake