Plant water relations
Gaylon S. Campbell, Ph.D.
Decagon Devices and Washington State
Plants fundamental dilemma
 Biochemistry requires a
highly hydrated
environment (> -3 MPa)
 Atmospheric environment
provides CO2 and light but
is dry (-100 MPa)
Water potential
Describes how tightly water
is bound in the soil
Describes the availability of
water for biological
Defines the flow of water in
all systems (including SPAC)
Water flow in the Soil Plant
Atmosphere Continuum (SPAC)
Low water potential
Boundary layer conductance to
water vapor flow
Stomatal conductance to water
vapor flow
Root conductance to liquid water
High water potential
Indicators of plant water stress
Leaf stomatal conductance
Leaf water potential
Soil water potential
Indicator #1: Leaf water potential
Ψleaf is potential of water in leaf outside of cells (only
matric potential)
The water outside cells is in equilibrium with the water
inside the cell, so, Ψcell = Ψleaf
Leaf water potential
Turgid leaf: Ψleaf = Ψcell = turgor pressure (Ψp) + osmotic
potential (Ψo) of water inside cell
Flaccid leaf: Ψleaf = Ψcell = Ψo (no positive pressure
Measuring leaf water potential
 There is no direct way to measure leaf water
 Equilibrium methods used exclusively
 Liquid equilibration methods - Create equilibrium
between sample and area of known water potential across semipermeable barrier
 Pressure chamber
 Vapor equilibration methods vapor equilibrium with sample
 Thermocouple psychrometer
 Dew point potentiameter
Measure humidity air in
Liquid equilibration: pressure
 Used to measure leaf water
potential (ψleaf)
 Equilibrate pressure inside
chamber with suction inside leaf
Sever petiole of leaf
Cover with wet paper towel
Seal in chamber
Pressurize chamber until moment sap
flows from petiole
 Range: 0 to -6 MPa
 leaf  PPressure Chamber
Two commercial pressure chambers
Vapor equilibration: chilled mirror dewpoint
Lab instrument
Measures both soil and plant water potential in the dry
Can measure Ψleaf
Insert leaf disc into sample chamber
Measurement accelerated by
abrading leaf surface with
Range: -0.1 MPa to -300 MPa
Pressure chamber – in situ comparison
Vapor equilibration: in situ leaf water
Field instrument
Measures Ψleaf
Clip on to leaf (must have good seal)
Must carefully shade clip
Range: -0.1 to -5 MPa
Leaf water potential as an indicator
of plant water status
 Can be an indicator of water stress in perennial
 Maximize crop production (table grapes)
 Schedule deficit irrigation (wine grapes)
 Many annual plants will shed leaves rather than
allow leaf water potential to change past a
lower threshold
 Non-irrigated potatoes
 Most plants will regulate stomatal conductance
before allowing leaf water potential to change
below threshold
Case study #1 Washington State
University apples
 Researchers used pressure chamber to monitor
leaf water potential of apple trees
 One set well-watered
 One set kept under water stress
 Results
½ as much vegetative growth – less pruning
Same amount of fruit production
Higher fruit quality
Saved irrigation water
Indicator #2: Stomatal conductance
 Describes gas diffusion through
plant stomata
 Plants regulate stomatal aperture
in response to environmental
 Described as either a
conductance or resistance
 Conductance is reciprocal of
 1/resistance
Stomatal conductance
 Can be good indicator of plant water status
 Many plants regulate water loss through stomatal
Fick's Law for gas diffusion
C L  Ca
RL  Ra
Evaporation (mol m-2 s-1)
Concentration (mol mol-1)
Resistance (m2 s mol-1)
stomatal resistance of the leaf
Boundary layer resistance
of the leaf
Do stomata control leaf water loss?
 Still air: boundary layer
resistance controls
 Moving air: stomatal
resistance controls
Bange (1953)
Obtaining resistances (or conductances)
 Boundary layer conductance depends on
wind speed, leaf size and diffusing gas
 Stomatal conductance is measured with a
leaf porometer
Measuring stomatal conductance –
2 types of leaf porometer
 Dynamic - rate of change of vapor
pressure in chamber attached to leaf
 Steady state - measure the vapor flux
and gradient near a leaf
Dynamic porometer
 Seal small chamber to leaf surface
 Use pump and desiccant to dry air in chamber
 Measure the time required for the chamber
humidity to rise some preset amount
Stomatal conductance is proportional to:
C v
ΔCv = change in water vapor concentration
Δt = change in time
Delta T dynamic diffusion porometer
Steady state porometer
Clamp a chamber with a fixed diffusion path to the
leaf surface
Measure the vapor pressure at two locations in the
diffusion path
Compute stomatal conductance from the vapor
pressure measurements and the known conductance
of the diffusion path
No pumps or desiccants
Steady state porometer
CvL  Cv1 Cv1  Cv 2
Rvs  R1
1  h1
Rvs 
R2  R1
h2  h1
Rvs = stomatal resistance to vapor flow
Decagon steady state porometer
Environmental effects on stomatal
conductance: Light
Stomata normally close in the dark
The leaf clip of the porometer darkens the
leaf, so stomata tend to close
Leaves in shadow or shade normally have
lower conductances than leaves in the sun
Overcast days may have lower
conductance than sunny days
Environmental effects on stomatal
conductance: Temperature
High and low temperature affects
photosynthesis and therefore conductance
Temperature differences between sensor
and leaf affect all diffusion porometer
readings. All can be compensated if leaf
and sensor temperatures are known
Environmental effects on stomatal
conductance: Humidity
Stomatal conductance increases with humidity at the leaf
Porometers that dry the air can decrease conductance
Porometers that allow surface humidity to increase can
increase conductance.
Environmental effects on stomatal
conductance: CO2
 Increasing carbon dioxide concentration at the
leaf surface decreases stomatal conductance.
 Photosynthesis cuvettes could alter conductance,
but porometers likely would not
 Operator CO2 could affect readings
What can I do with a porometer?
 Water use and water balance
 Use conductance with Fick’s law to determine crop
transpiration rate
 Develop crop cultivars for dry climates/salt affected
 Determine plant water stress in annual and
perennial species
 Study effects of environmental conditions
 Schedule irrigation
 Optimize herbicide uptake
 Study uptake of ozone and other pollutants
Case study #2 Washington State
University wheat
 Researchers using steady state porometer
to create drought resistant wheat cultivars
 Evaluating physiological response to drought
stress (stomatal closing)
 Selecting individuals with optimal response
Case study #3 Chitosan study
 Evaluation of effects of Chitosan on
plant water use efficiency
 Chitosan induces stomatal closure
 Leaf porometer used to evaluate
 26 – 43% less water used while
maintaining biomass production
Case Study 4: Stress in wine grapes
Leaf Water Potential (bars)
y = 0.0204x - 12.962
R² = 0.5119
Stomatal Conductance (mmol m -2 s-1)
Indicator #3: Soil water potential
 Defines the supply part of the
supply/demand function of water stress
 “field capacity” = -0.03 MPa
 “permanent wilting point” -1.5 MPa
 We discussed how to measure soil water
potential earlier
Applications of soil water potential
 Irrigation management
 Deficit irrigation
 Lower yield but higher quality fruit
 Wine grapes
 Fruit trees
 No water stress – optimal yield
Appendix: Lower limit water potentials
Agronomic Crops
 Leaf water potential, stomatal conductance, and
soil water potential can all be powerful tools to
assess plant water status
 Knowledge of how plants are affected by water
stress are important
 Ecosystem health
 Crop yield
 Produce quality
Appendix: Water potential measurement
technique matrix
Range (MPa)
+0.1 to -0.085
(liquid equilibration)
soil matric potential
internal suction balanced
against matric potential
through porous cup
cavitates and must be refilled if
minimum range is exceeded
Pressure chamber
(liquid equilibration)
water potential of plant
tissue (leaves)
external pressure balanced
against leaf water potential
0 to -6
sometimes difficult to see endpoint;
must have fresh from leaf;
in situ soil psychrometer
(vapor equilibration)
matric plus osmotic
potential in soil
same as sample changer
0 to -5
same as sample changer psychrometer
in situ leaf
(vapor equilibration)
water potential of plant
tissue (leaves)
same as sample changer
0 to -5
same as sample changer; should be
shaded from direct sun; must have
good seal to leaf
Dewpoint hygrometer
(vapor equilibration)
matric plus osmotic
potential of soils, leaves,
solutions, other
measures hr of vapor
equilibrated with sample.
Uses Kelvin equation to get
water potential
-0.1 to -300
laboratory instrument. Sensitive to
changes in ambient room temperature.
Heat dissipation
(solid equilibration)
matric potential of soil
ceramic thermal properties
empirically related to matric
-0.01 to -30
Needs individual calibration
Electrical properties
(solid equilibration)
matric potential of soil
ceramic electrical properties
empirically related to matric
-0.01 to -0.5
Gypsum sensors dissolve with time.
EC type sensors have large errors in
salty soils

Section 4- Plant Water Relations