Ontogenetic scaling of phloem sieve tube anatomy and hydraulic resistance with tree height in Quercus rubra

Laura E. Clerx, Fulton E. Rockwell, Jessica A. Savage, N. Michele Holbrook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Premise: The dimensions of phloem sieve elements have been shown to vary as a function of tree height, decreasing hydraulic resistance as the transport pathway lengthens. However, little is known about ontogenetic patterns of sieve element scaling. Here we examine within a single species (Quercus rubra) how decreases in hydraulic resistance with distance from the plant apex are mediated by overall plant size. Methods: We sampled and imaged phloem tissue at multiple heights along the main stem and in the live crown of four size classes of trees using fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy. Sieve element length and radius, the number of sieve areas per compound plate, pore number, and pore radius were used to calculate total hydraulic resistance at each sampling location. Results: Sieve element length varied with tree size, while sieve element radius, sieve pore radius, and the number of sieve areas per compound plate varied with sampling position. When data from all size classes were aggregated, all four variables followed a power-law trend with distance from the top of the tree. The net effect of these ontogenetic scalings was to make total hydraulic sieve tube resistance independent of tree height from 0.5 to over 20 m. Conclusions: Sieve element development responded to two pieces of information, tree size and distance from the apex, in a manner that conserved total sieve tube resistance across size classes. A further differentiated response between the phloem in the live crown and in the main stem is also suggested.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAmerican journal of botany
StatePublished - Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was funded by NSF‐IOS 1456845. F.E.R. acknowledges support from NSF‐IOS 1456836 and the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research FA9550‐18‐1‐0345. L.E.C. acknowledges support from the Herchel Smith – Harvard Undergraduate Science Research Program, Harvard College Program for Research in Science and Engineering, and Harvard College Research Program. We thank K. Jensen, J. Losada, Y.‐J. Zhang, J. Gersony, T. Alexander, C. Safdi‐Gerlein, T. Morrison, and J. Haydek for help with the study, and the Arnold Arboretum and the Harvard Forest for access to field sites and laboratory support. We also thank Dr. Mark Olson and two anonymous reviewers for suggesting many improvements to the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Botanical Society of America


  • Fagaceae
  • allometry
  • long distance transport
  • phloem anatomy
  • plant vascular architecture
  • plant vascular transport


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