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The limits to tree height

Abstract

Trees grow tall where resources are abundant, stresses are minor, and competition for light places a premium on height growth1,2. The height to which trees can grow and the biophysical determinants of maximum height are poorly understood. Some models predict heights of up to 120 m in the absence of mechanical damage3,4, but there are historical accounts of taller trees5. Current hypotheses of height limitation focus on increasing water transport constraints in taller trees and the resulting reductions in leaf photosynthesis6. We studied redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), including the tallest known tree on Earth (112.7 m), in wet temperate forests of northern California. Our regression analyses of height gradients in leaf functional characteristics estimate a maximum tree height of 122–130 m barring mechanical damage, similar to the tallest recorded trees of the past. As trees grow taller, increasing leaf water stress due to gravity and path length resistance may ultimately limit leaf expansion and photosynthesis for further height growth, even with ample soil moisture.

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Figure 1: Variation with height in physiological and structural features of redwood trees at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.
Figure 2: Variation in leaf structure with height in redwood.
Figure 3: Leaf structure can vary independently of light environment.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Global Forest Society, the Save-the-Redwoods League, and Northern Arizona University's Organized Research, and permitted by Redwood State and National Parks. J. Amthor, S. Burgess, T. Dawson, A. Fredeen, B. Hungate and H. Mooney provided comments that improved the paper.Authors' contributions G.K., S. S. and G.J. conceived and conducted the experiments, and G.K. and S.S. analysed the data and co-wrote the paper. S. D. and G. K. conducted the xylem cavitation experiments.

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Correspondence to George W. Koch.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

Includes supplementary text and figure showing xylem vulnerability curves for small branches of redwood sampled at 109±1m (upper branches) and 57±5m (lower branches) in the crowns of 6 trees at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. (PDF 20 kb)

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Koch, G., Sillett, S., Jennings, G. et al. The limits to tree height. Nature 428, 851–854 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02417

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