Water relations of riparian plants from warm desert regions

Stanley D. Smith, Dale A. Devitt, Anna Sala, James R. Cleverly, David E. Busch

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175 Scopus citations


Riparian plants have been classified as 'drought avoiders' due to their access to an abundant subsurface water supply. Recent water-relations research that tracks water sources of riparian plants using the stable isotopes of water suggests that many plants of the riparian zone use ground water rather than stream water, and not all riparian plants are obligate phreatophytes (dependent on ground water as a moisture source) but may occasionally be dependent on unsaturated soil moisture sources. A more thorough understanding of riparian plant-water relations must include water-source dynamics and how those dynamics vary over both space and time. Many rivers in the desert Southwest have been invaded by the exotic shrub Tamarix ramosissima (saltcedar). Our studies of Tamarix invasion into habitats formerly dominated by native riparian forests of primarily Populus and Salix have shown that Tamarix successfully invades these habitats because of its (1) greater tolerance to water stress and salinity, (2) status as a facultative, rather than obligate, phreatophyte and, therefore, its ability to recover from droughts and periods of ground-water drawdown, and (3) superior regrowth after fire. Analysis of water-loss rates indicate that Tamarix-dominated stands can have extremely high evapotranspiration rates when water tables are high but not necessarily when water tables are lower. Tamarix has leaf-level transpiration rates that are comparable to native species, whereas sap-flow rates per unit sapwood area are higher than in natives, suggesting that Tamarix maintains higher leaf area than can natives, probably due to its greater water stress tolerance. Tamarix desiccates and salinizes floodplains, due to its salt exudation and high transpiration rates, and may also accelerate fire cycles, thus predisposing these ecosystems to further loss of native taxa. Riparian species on regulated rivers can be exposed to seasonal water stress due to depression of floodplain water tables and elimination of annual floods. This can potentially result in a community shift toward more stress-tolerant taxa, such as Tamarix, due to the inability of other riparian species to germinate and establish in the desiccated floodplain environment. Management efforts aimed at maintaining native forests on regulated rivers and slowing the spread of Tamarix invasion must include at least partial reintroduction of historical flow regimes, which favor the recruitment of native riparian species and reverse long-term desiccation of desert floodplain environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)687-696
Number of pages10
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1998


  • Ground water
  • Phreatophyte
  • Plant water relations
  • Populus
  • Prosopis
  • Riparian
  • Salix
  • Sap flow
  • Stable isotopes
  • Tamarix
  • Transpiration
  • Water stress


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