Physics in Perspective

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 320–358 | Cite as

The Theory of the Rise of Sap in Trees: Some Historical and Conceptual Remarks

Article

Abstract

The ability of trees to suck water from roots to leaves, sometimes to heights of over a hundred meters, is remarkable given the absence of any mechanical pump. In this study I deal with a number of issues, of both a historical and conceptual nature, in the orthodox Cohesion-Tension (CT) theory of the ascent of sap in trees. The theory relies chiefly on the exceptional cohesive and adhesive properties of water, the structural properties of trees, and the role of evaporation (“transpiration”) from leaves. But it is not the whole story. Plant scientists have been aware since the inception of the theory in the late 19th century that further processes are at work in order to “prime” the trees, the main such process – growth itself – being so obvious to them that it is often omitted from the story. Other factors depend largely on the type of tree, and are not always fully understood. For physicists, in particular, it may be helpful to see the fuller picture, which is what I attempt to provide in nontechnical terms.

Keywords

Eugen Askenasy Josef Böhm Edwin B. Copeland Pierre Cruiziat Francis Darwin Henry H. Dixon George Francis FitzGerald Stephen Hales Taco Hajo van den Honert John Joly John A. Milburn Park S. Nobel J.J. Oertli William F. Picard John S. Sperry Ernst Steudle Eduard Strasburger Melvin T. Tyree Martin H. Zimmermann cohesion-tension theory rise of sap transpiration capillarity cavitation negative xylem pressure hydraulic architecture global warming climate change history of biophysics 

Notes

Acknowledgments

Detailed comments on the first draft of my paper were provided by Pierre Cruiziat and by John Sperry and members of his research group: Duncan Smith, David Love, and Allison Thompson. Their comments, much appreciated, corrected a number of errors and provided helpful suggestions for improvements. Melvin Tyree also kindly provided helpful remarks. Bryn Harris kindly transcribed the original LaTeX pdf file into Word, and Patrick Wyse Jackson, curator of the Geological Museum, Trinity College Dublin, kindly authorized reproduction of the image of John Joly. John Pannell provided guidance on key points, and special help with understanding Böhm’s 1893 paper; without his constant encouragement and inspiration the project would never have been completed. I dedicate my paper to Rom Harré, a mentor and philosopher whose extraordinarily wide interests include plant science and its history. Finally, I thank Roger H. Stuewer for his meticulous and time-consuming editorial and technical assistance with this paper, and for his encouragement generally.

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© Springer Basel 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of PhilosophyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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