Capillary action and root pressure can support a column of water some two to three meters high, but taller trees--all trees, in fact, at maturity--obviously require more force. In some older specimens--including some species such as Sequoia, Pseudotsuga menziesii and many species in tropical rain forests--the canopy is 100 meters or more above the ground! In this case, the additional force that pulls the water column up the vessels or tracheids is evapotranspiration, the loss of water from the leaves through openings called stomata and subsequent evaporation of that water. As water is lost out of the leaf cells through transpiration, a gradient is established whereby the movement of water out of the cell raises its osmotic concentration and, therefore, its suction pressure. This pressure allows these cells to suck water from adjoining cells which, in turn, take water from their adjoining cells, and so on--from leaves to twigs to branches to stems and down to the roots--maintaining a continuous pull.
Image: GARY ANDERSON, University of Southern Mississippi
To maintain a continuous column, the water molecules must also have a strong affinity for one other. This idea is called the cohesion theory. Water does, in fact, exhibit tremendous cohesive strength. Theoretically, this cohesion is estimated to be as much as 15,000 atmospheres (atm). Experimentally, though, it appears to be much less at only 25 to 30 atm. Assuming atmospheric pressure at ground level, nine atm is more than enough to "hang" a water column in a narrow tube (tracheids or vessels) from the top of a 100 meter tree. But a greater force is needed to overcome the resistance to flow and the resistance to uptake by the roots. Even so, many researchers have demonstrated that the cohesive force of water is more than sufficient to do so, especially when it is aided by the capillary action within tracheids and vessels.
In conclusion, trees have placed themselves in the cycle that circulates water from the soil to clouds and back. They are able to maintain water in the liquid phase up to their total height by maintaining a column of water in small hollow tubes using root pressure, capillary action and the cohesive force of water.
Mark Vitosh, a Program Assistant in Extension Forestry at Iowa State University, adds the following information:
Image: PACIFIC LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY
There are many different processes occuring within trees that allow them to grow. One is the movement of water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves in the canopy, or upper branches. Water is the building block of living cells; it is a nourishing and cleansing agent, and a transport medium that allows for the distribution of nutrients and carbon compounds (food) throughout the tree. The coastal redwood, or Sequoia sempervirens, can reach heights over 300 feet (or approximately 91 meters), which is a great distance for water, nutrients and carbon compounds to move. To understand how water moves through a tree, we must first describe the path it takes.
Water and mineral nutrients--the so-called sap flow--travel from the roots to the top of the tree within a layer of wood found under the bark. This sapwood consists of conductive tissue called xylem (made up of small pipe-like cells). There are major differences between hardwoods (oak, ash, maple) and conifers (redwood, pine, spruce, fir) in the structure of xylem. In hardwoods, water moves throughout the tree in xylem cells called vessels, which are lined up end-to-end and have large openings in their ends. In contrast, the xylem of conifers consists of enclosed cells called tracheids. These cells are also lined up end-to-end, but part of their adjacent walls have holes that act as a sieve. For this reason, water moves faster through the larger vessels of hardwoods than through the smaller tracheids of conifers.