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Greater resistance to flooding of seedlings of Ulmus laevis than Ulmus minor is related to the maintenance of a more positive carbon balance


Key message

Flooding reduces leaf photosynthesis but initially enhances plant respiration. Differences in flood-induced restrictions to plant net carbon gain could underlie distinct susceptibility to flooding between species.


Flooding affects plant physiology and development, ultimately determining species’ ecology and distribution. Ulmus laevis Pallas and Ulmus minor L. are two European riparian trees facing habitat degradation and Dutch elm disease. Here, we have investigated the sensitivity to flooding of 2-year-old seedlings of these species to ascertain their level of tolerance in relation to future reforestations. Gas exchange of leaves, stems and roots, hydraulic conductivity and growth were measured in a controlled experiment. Seedlings of U. minor died by the 60th day of flooding, but not those of U. laevis, which partly recovered physiological functions after 30 days of adequate watering. Light-saturated net photosynthesis rate (P n ) and stomatal conductance progressively declined after flooding started. Forty-six days later, P n was 2 and 3 times lower in flooded compared to control U. laevis and U. minor plants, respectively; at this time, the percentage loss of root hydraulic conductivity increased by fourfold relative to control plants. Rates of respiration initially increased with flooding in leaves, stems and roots, and then were similar in flooded and control plants. Aerenchyma was not formed on either species, but lenticels at the water line became increasingly hypertrophied and could help in providing oxygen and sustaining respiration. Whole-plant net carbon gain was 3 and 9 times lower in flooded than control plants in U. laevis and U. minor, respectively. Our data suggest that the inability to maintain a positive carbon balance somehow compromises seedling survival under flooding, earlier in U. minor than U. laevis, partly explaining their differential habitats.

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Author contribution statement

M.L. contributed to experiment setup, physiological measurements, data analyses and writing. R.L. was responsible for conception of experimental design, anatomical measurements and writing. M.V. was responsible for conception of experimental design, physiological measurements and writing. P.P. was responsible for growth measurements and writing. G.G.G. was responsible for experiment setup and physiological measurements. L.G. was responsible for conception of experimental design and writing. J. R-C. was responsible for conception of experimental design, experiment setup, physiological measurements and writing.


We are thankful to the personnel from the fish farm of ETSI Montes (especially Fernando Torrent and Victoriano Hernández) for kindly allowing the use of the installations and monitoring pool water conditions. We also thank David Borrego for making anatomical cuttings, Elena Zafra and Javier Cano for experimental preparations, and Gerrie Seket for language revision.

Conflict of interest

Jesús Rodríguez-Calcerrada was supported by a “Juan de la Cierva” contract from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. This study was funded by the project OLMOS (AGL2012-35580). The authors declare no conflict of interest in relation with this work.

Author information

Correspondence to Jesús Rodríguez-Calcerrada.

Additional information

Communicated by J. Major.

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Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary Figure 1. Tests checking for temporal variation of mass-based root and stem respiration. The dashed line indicates the cutting time. Measurements were completed within 10 min of cutting, at which time, relative to all averaged previous values before cutting, stem respiration had changed by 1.07 %, −11.61 % and 0.97 % in the 3 sampled trees, respectively, and root respiration by −0.88 %, −2.55 % and 2.11 % (DOCX 36 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2. Maximum hydraulic conductivity (Kmax) of one-year-old shoots, two-year-old shoots and roots of U. laevis and U. minor subjected to regular watering (C; black symbols) or flooding (F; white symbols). The last date corresponds to plants examined for recovery 30 days after the treatment of flooding; it could not be examined in U. minor because flooded plants died (DOCX 52 kb)

Supplementary Figure 3. Total plant dry mass of U. laevis and U. minor subjected to regular watering (C; black symbols) or flooding (F; white symbols). Symbols are mean ± standard error (n = 5) (DOCX 31 kb)

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Li, M., López, R., Venturas, M. et al. Greater resistance to flooding of seedlings of Ulmus laevis than Ulmus minor is related to the maintenance of a more positive carbon balance. Trees 29, 835–848 (2015).

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  • Waterlogging
  • Plant mortality
  • Anatomy
  • Xylem cavitation
  • Carbon budget