Plant Cuttings

Soil to roots to stem to atmosphere…

Studies show that fog water diffuses directly through leaf cuticles of Drimys brasiliensis and is transported through the xylem to below ground.

Image: Eric Hunt/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Eric Hunt/Wikimedia Commons.

That is the usual route taken by water within plants. And for most of them that is all there is. However, not all plants are the same (see the earlier BrachypodiumArabidopsis blog post). Take for instance plants that live in cloud forests. Despite the general persistence of water-bearing cloud or fog cover, when that life-sustaining envelope of hydration is absent – and coupled with the aridity that accompanies those ecosystems’ high elevations – such habitats experience seasonal drought and can be quite arid. Consequently, plants in that habitat can’t always rely on soil-stored water and several employ other, additional mechanisms for water abstraction.

Although foliar water uptake (FWU) is a widely recognised water-acquisition strategy for such plants, its prevalence and importance to water and carbon economy of tropical cloud forest species is largely unknown. Using studies both in glasshouse and in the ‘field’ (sorry, I just can’t get used to calling a mountain habitat study area a field…), Cleiton Eller et al. have demonstrated the importance of FWU for Drimys brasiliensis (Winteraceae). They have shown that fog water diffuses directly through leaf cuticles(!), is transported through the xylem to below ground, and enhances leaf water potential, photosynthesis, stomatal conductance and growth relative to plants sheltered from fog. They drily conclude that ‘Foliar uptake of fog water is an important water acquisition mechanism that can mitigate the deleterious effects of soil water deficits for D. brasiliensis’.

This also messes up anyone’s ‘linear teaching model’ where we tell our students that water travels unidirectionally – upwards – in the xylem, photosynthates travel bidirectionally in the phloem (no, not in the same sieve tubes at the same time… or does it..?). Plant biology, eh, certainly has its ups – and its downs…

About the author

Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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  • Many years ago (can’t remember when) I recall flicking through an old journal (can’t remember which one) in the library and finding a paper with a neat demonstration of foliar water uptake and ‘reverse transpiration’. It involved pruning plants (I think they were Ribes sp., possibly raspberry) to just two aerial shoots attached to the same rootstock,withholding water until they wilted and then misting just one shoot with water: both shoots recovered their turgor. It was interesting because the test plant wasn’t one that had evolved in particular dry habitats, suggesting that the capacity to absorb water through leaves and move it around the plant wasn’t limited to the usual suspects i.e. desert trees and other species from seasonally dry habitats.

    Long before that, my first job after I left school, 40 ears ago, was recording data from foliar feeding trials in a large chrysanthemum nursery, where they were attempting to improve the quality of pot-grown and cut-flower stock by seeing it the root-stem-leaf system would work in reverse. I left to go to university before all the data was collated and never found out what the outcome of the trial was – I suspect that, like a lot of potentially interesting work, it’s buried in old horticultural literature that will never be digitised and will be forgotten.