At a site in the Sonoran Desert, subterranean rocks and exposed boulders affected soil water potential as well as root morphology and distribution. For Agave deserti, the number of lateral roots per unit length of main root was 11 times higher under rocks and six times higher alongside rocks than in rock-free regions. Total root length per unit soil volume for Echinocereus engelmannii averaged 3-fold higher within 1 cm of boulders than 5 cm away, where the soil was drier. The total length of lateral roots per unit length of main root for Ferocactus acanthodes was 4.2 m m−1 under rocks but only 0.8 m m−1 in rock-free regions. The number of lateral roots per unit length of main root for Opuntia acanthocarpa was 7-fold higher alongside rocks than in rock-free regions and even higher under rocks. For transplanted and watered A. deserti, the number of new main roots produced per 1–2 month interval averaged 13 for five plants on the north side of boulders, 8 on the south side, 11 for five plants with half of their roots under rocks, 2 for those with half of their roots over rocks, and 3 for the control plants without rocks. Laboratory experiments showed that the soil water potential under rocks for 10 and 30 mm waterings stayed above −0.5 MPa for 13 and 19 d longer, respectively, than for regions away from rocks. The shortwave absorptance of granitic rocks from the field site was 0.82, the thermal conductivity coefficient was 1.50 W m−1 °C−1, and the volumetric heat capacity was 1.75 MJ m−3 °C−1. Field measurements indicated that 5-cm-thick buried rocks decreased the diel variation in soil temperatures on their undersurface by only 0.4° C compared with soil. Thus, the primary influence of rocks at the field site on root proliferation and branching for the four species was apparently caused by influences on soil water content.
Agave Cactus Root morphology Sonoran Desert Water potential