Drought survival in perennial forage plants involves different adaptative responses such as delay of dehydration through water uptake, limitation of water loss and tolerance of tissues to dessication. To compare the importance of these responses in contrasting cultivars of forage grasses at the whole plant level, we carried out two experiments under glasshouse conditions. Plants of cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata L.) cultivars, cvs. Currie, Medly (both of Mediterranean origin) and Lutetia (of continental origin), and of tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea L.) cv. Centurion (Mediterranean) were grown in 60 cm-deep cylinders to eliminate the effect of differences of root depth on water availability whilst allowing severe drought to be imposed at a realistic rate. In both experiments, the cvs. were ranked similarly for plant survival, with high mortality for Centurion, low for the Mediterranean cocksfoots Currie and Medly, and intermediate for Lutetia. These differences could not be ascribed to water use during most of the drought period since water uptake and decrease in leaf extension were not significantly different between species and cultivars. However, resistant cvs. of cocksfoot were able to extract water for a longer period and at a lower soil water potential (Ψs) than other cvs. The critical Ψs at plant death was −3.8 and −3.6 MPa for Medly and Currie and −3.0-,−2.6 MPa for Lutetia and Centurion. Moreover, at a low soil water reserve (15–2%), membrane stability and water content were maintained for longer in enclosed immature leaf bases of cocksfoots cultivars, whereas the fescue Centurion exhibited accelerated lamina senescence and steady increase of membrane damage in surviving tissues. Therefore, it is proposed that the drought resistance of tall fescue in the field can mainly be ascribed to its ability to develop a deep root system. In cocksfoot, dehydration tolerance in surviving tissues and the ability of roots to extract water at low soil water potentials may, in addition to root depth, contribute significantly to plant survival under severe drought.
cocksfootdehydration tolerancedrought resistancefescuemembrane stabilitysoil water potential