Plants use water in the pores of rock fragments during drought


Background and aims

Soils are composed of both fine and coarse materials. Coarse material (> 2 mm) is considered to be inert and is usually discarded in models of plant water balance, even though it affects soil properties. No studies have yet attempted to assess whether rock fragments may act as a water reservoir for plants.


Cuttings of Populus euramericana were planted in 5-L pots containing reconstituted soil made up of fine earth (silty clay loam texture) and either limestone or inert (quartz) pebbles (rock fragments 2–5 cm) at 0, 20, and 40% volume in a cross-factorial experiment. Two drought periods were applied and the growth, evapotranspiration, water stress status by stomatal conductance, and water content of the two soil phases (fine earth and pebbles) were monitored.


First, pebbles can contain water, and ignoring this water induced and underestimations of the soil available water content by respectively 11% and 30% for the treatment with 20% and 40% limestone pebbles. Second, the plants grown on limestone pebbles were up to 70% less stressed than the plants grown on inert pebbles during drought. Third, stomatal conductance, a water stress indicator, was correlated with the water content of both the fine earth and the limestone pebbles.


These results demonstrate that limestone rock fragments can retain available water and act as a reservoir during drought periods.

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available water capacity




stomatal conductivity


water use efficiency


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We thank Hervé Gaillard for his technical assistance at UR SOLS; the Inra Research Unit UMR BIOFORA, which provided us with the poplar cuttings; and Inra UE GBFOR, which provided and maintained the greenhouse equipment. We thank Vicky Moore for reviewing the English.

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Correspondence to Nathalie Korboulewsky.

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Korboulewsky, N., Tétégan, M., Samouelian, A. et al. Plants use water in the pores of rock fragments during drought. Plant Soil 454, 35–47 (2020).

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  • Stony soil
  • Rock fragments
  • Water absorption
  • Hydrological processes
  • Water stress
  • Stomatal conductivity
  • Drought