Hydraulic constraints modify optimal photosynthetic profiles in giant sequoia trees

Anthony R. Ambrose, Wendy L. Baxter, Christopher S. Wong, Stephen S.O. Burgess, Cameron B. Williams, Rikke R. Næsborg, George W. Koch, Todd E. Dawson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Optimality theory states that whole-tree carbon gain is maximized when leaf N and photosynthetic capacity profiles are distributed along vertical light gradients such that the marginal gain of nitrogen investment is identical among leaves. However, observed photosynthetic N gradients in trees do not follow this prediction, and the causes for this apparent discrepancy remain uncertain. Our objective was to evaluate how hydraulic limitations potentially modify crown-level optimization in Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant sequoia) trees up to 90 m tall. Leaf water potential (Ψl) and branch sap flow closely followed diurnal patterns of solar radiation throughout each tree crown. Minimum leaf water potential correlated negatively with height above ground, while leaf mass per area (LMA), shoot mass per area (SMA), leaf nitrogen content (%N), and bulk leaf stable carbon isotope ratios (δ13C) correlated positively with height. We found no significant vertical trends in maximum leaf photosynthesis (A), stomatal conductance (gs), and intrinsic water-use efficiency (A/gs), nor in branch-averaged transpiration (EL), stomatal conductance (GS), and hydraulic conductance (KL). Adjustments in hydraulic architecture appear to partially compensate for increasing hydraulic limitations with height in giant sequoia, allowing them to sustain global maximum summer water use rates exceeding 2000 kg day−1. However, we found that leaf N and photosynthetic capacity do not follow the vertical light gradient, supporting the hypothesis that increasing limitations on water transport capacity with height modify photosynthetic optimization in tall trees.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)713-730
Number of pages18
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Hydraulic conductance
  • Hydraulic limitation
  • Sap flow
  • Sequoiadendron giganteum
  • Tree size
  • Xylem conduit widening

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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