, Volume 95, Issue 4, pp 565–574 | Cite as

Hydraulic lift and water use by plants: implications for water balance, performance and plant-plant interactions

  • Todd E. Dawson
Original Papers


During drought periods, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) demonstrates “hydraulic lift”; nocturnal uptake of water by roots from deep soil layers that is released from shallow roots into upper soil layers. Using standard water relations methods and stable hydrogen isotope analysis of both source-water and plant-water, I investigated (1) the magnitude and radial extent of hydraulic lift by mature, relatively open-grown trees, of A. saccharum, (2) the proportion of hydraulically-lifted water (HLW) used by shallow-rooted neighbors growing at different distances from target trees, and (3) the influence that this water source had on stomatal conductance to water vapor (g), water balance and growth of these neighbors. Soil water potentials (ψs) at −20 and −35 cm showed a distinct diel fluctuation. Soil pits dug beneath three mature trees revealed a distinct hard-pan (e.g. fragipan) layer at a depth of approximately 50 cm. Examination of root distributions obtained from soil cores and soil pits revealed that some larger diameter roots (1.9–3.7 cm) did penetrate the fragipan and were established in the ground water table. The presence of the fragipan indicated that the “rewetting” of the upper soil layer during the night could not be explained by capillary rise from the shallow water table; it was the trees that were taking up ground water and then redepositing it at night into the upper 35 cm of soil, above the fragipan. The greatest fluctuations in ψs occurred within 2.5 m of trees and only extended out to approximately 5 m. Application of a two-end-member linear mixing model which used stable hydrogen isotopic data obtained from environmental water sources and xylem-sap demonstrated that all neighbors used some fraction (3–60%) of HLW supplied by sugar maple trees. Plants that used a high proportion of HLW (e.g. rhizomatous or stoloniferous perennials) maintained significantly higher leaf water potentials and g, and showed greater aboveground growth when compared with (i) neighbors that used little or no HLW or (ii) conspecifics found growing at distances greater than about 3 m away from maple trees. Three important conclusions can be drawn from the results of this investigation that have not been demonstrated before: (1) hydraulic lift need not only occur in arid or semi-arid environments where chronic water deficits prevail, but can be important in relatively mesic environments when subjected to periodic soil water deficits, (2) that plants neighboring trees which conduct hydraulic lift can use a significant proportion of this water source, and (3) that the HLW source can effectively ameliorate the influence of drought on the performance and growth of neighboring vegetation. The results are also discussed in terms of their influence on plant nutrient relations (including plant-mycorrhizal associations), the nature of plant-plant interactions and the water balance of individuals, communities and floristic regions.

Key words

Roots Hydraulic lift Stable hydrogen isotopic composition Soil and leaf water potential Stomatal conductance 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Todd E. Dawson
    • 1
  1. 1.Section of Ecology and SystematicsCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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