Hydraulic limits on maximum plant transpiration and the emergence of the safety-efficiency trade-off

Stefano Manzoni, Giulia Vico, Gabriel Katul, Sari Palmroth, Robert B. Jackson, Amilcare Porporato

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

144 Scopus citations


Soil and plant hydraulics constrain ecosystem productivity by setting physical limits to water transport and hence carbon uptake by leaves. While more negative xylem water potentials provide a larger driving force for water transport, they also cause cavitation that limits hydraulic conductivity. An optimum balance between driving force and cavitation occurs at intermediate water potentials, thus defining the maximum transpiration rate the xylem can sustain (denoted as Emax). The presence of this maximum raises the question as to whether plants regulate transpiration through stomata to function near Emax. To address this question, we calculated Emax across plant functional types and climates using a hydraulic model and a global database of plant hydraulic traits. The predicted Emax compared well with measured peak transpiration across plant sizes and growth conditions (R = 0.86, P < 0.001) and was relatively conserved among plant types (for a given plant size), while increasing across climates following the atmospheric evaporative demand. The fact that Emax was roughly conserved across plant types and scales with the product of xylem saturated conductivity and water potential at 50% cavitation was used here to explain the safety-efficiency trade-off in plant xylem. Stomatal conductance allows maximum transpiration rates despite partial cavitation in the xylem thereby suggesting coordination between stomatal regulation and xylem hydraulic characteristics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)169-178
Number of pages10
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


  • Hydraulic limitation
  • Safety-efficiency trade-off
  • Soil-plant-atmosphere model
  • Trait coordination
  • Transpiration
  • Vulnerability to cavitation
  • Xylem conductivity


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