Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The limits to tree height


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.


  1. King, D. A. The adaptive significance of tree height. Am. Nat. 135, 809–828 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Waring, R. H. & Schlesinger, W. H. Forest Ecosystems (Academic, Orlando, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  3. West, G. B., Brown, J. H. & Enquist, B. J. A general model for the structure and allometry of plant vascular systems. Nature 400, 664–667 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Friend, A. D. in Vegetation Dynamics and Global Change (eds Solomon, A. M. & Shugart, H. H.) 101–115 (Chapman and Hall, New York, 1993)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  5. Carder, A. C. Forest Giants of the World, Past and Present (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Markham, Ontario, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Ryan, M. J. & Yoder, B. J. Hydraulic limits to tree height and tree growth. Bioscience 47, 235–242 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Zimmermann, M. H. Xylem Structure and the Ascent of Sap (Springer, New York, 1983)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  8. Tyree, M. T. & Sperry, J. S. The vulnerability of xylem to cavitation and embolism. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. Plant Mol. Biol. 40, 19–38 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Davis, S. D. et al. Shoot dieback during prolonged drought in Ceanothus (Rhamnaceae) chaparral of California: a possible case of hydraulic failure. Am. J. Bot. 89, 820–828 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Kramer, P. J. & Boyer, J. S. Water Relations of Plants and Soils (Academic, San Diego, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Taiz, L. & Zeiger, E. Plant Physiology, 3rd edn (Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Reich, P. B. et al. Generality of leaf trait relationships: a test across six biomes. Ecology 80, 1955–1969 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Niinemets, U., Kull, O. & Tenhunen, J. D. An analysis of light effects on foliar morphology, physiology and light interception in temperate deciduous woody species of contrasting shade tolerance. Tree Physiol. 18, 681–696 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Bond, B. J., Farnsworth, B. T., Coulombe, R. A. & Winner, W. E. Foliage physiology and biochemistry in response to light gradients in conifers with varying shade tolerance. Oecologia 120, 183–192 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Farquhar, G. D., Ehleringer, J. R. & Hubick, K. T. Carbon isotope discrimination and photosynthesis. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. Plant Mol. Biol. 40, 503–537 (1989)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Ehleringer, J. R. in Stable Isotopes in Plant Carbon–Water Relations (eds Ehleringer, J. R., Hall, A. E. & Farquhar, G. D.) 155–172 (Academic, San Diego, 1993)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Vogel, J. C. in Stable Isotopes in Plant Carbon–Water Relations (eds Ehleringer, J. R., Hall, A. E. & Farquhar, G. D.) 29–46 (Academic, San Diego, 1993)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  18. Van de Water, P. K., Leavitt, S. W. & Betancourt, J. L. Leaf δ13C variability with elevation, slope aspect, and precipitation in the southwest United States. Oecologia 132, 332–343 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Yoder, B. J., Ryan, M. G., Waring, R. H., Schoettle, A. W. & Kaufmann, M. R. Evidence of reduced photosynthetic rates in old trees. Forest Sci. 40, 513–526 (1994)

    Google Scholar 

  20. McDowell, N. G., Phillips, N., Lunch, C., Bond, B. J. & Ryan, M. G. An investigation of hydraulic limitation and compensation in large, old Douglas-fir trees. Tree Physiol. 22, 763–772 (2002)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Niinemets, U. Components of leaf dry mass per area—thickness and density—alter leaf photosynthetic capacity in reverse directions in woody plants. New Phytol. 144, 35–47 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Parkhurst, D. F. Diffusion of CO2 and other gases inside leaves. New Phytol. 126, 449–479 (1994)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Warren, C. R. et al. Transfer conductance in second growth Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco) canopies. Plant Cell Environ. 26, 1215–1227 (2003)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Hacke, U. G. & Sperry, J. S. Limits to xylem refilling under negative pressure in Laurus nobilis and Acer negundo. Plant Cell Environ 26, 303–311 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Stine, S. Extreme and persistent drought in California and Patagonia during mediaeval time. Nature 369, 546–549 (1994)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Noss, R. F. (ed.) The Redwood Forest: History, Ecology and Conservation of Coast Redwoods (Island, Washington DC, 2000)

  27. Jennings, G. M. . Vertical Hydraulic Gradients and the Cause of Foliar Variation in Tall Redwood Trees Thesis, Humboldt State Univ., Arcata, California (2003)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Medlyn, B. E. et al. Stomatal conductance of forest species after long-term exposure to elevated CO2 concentration: a synthesis. New Phytol. 149, 247–264 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Boyer, J. S. Measuring the Water Status of Plants and Soils (Academic, San Diego, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to George W. Koch.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

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)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Koch, G., Sillett, S., Jennings, G. et al. The limits to tree height. Nature 428, 851–854 (2004).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing