Both vessel and tracheid cells allow water and nutrients to move up the tree, whereas specialized ray cells pass water and food horizontally across the xylem. All xylem cells that carry water are dead, so they act as a pipe. Xylem tissue is found in all growth rings (wood) of the tree. Not all tree species have the same number of annual growth rings that are active in the movement of water and mineral nutrients. For example, conifer trees and some hardwood species may have several growth rings that are active conductors, whereas in other species, such as the oaks, only the current years' growth ring is functional.
This unique situation comes about because the xylem tissue in oaks has very large vessels; they can carry a lot of water quickly, but can also be easily disrupted by freezing and air pockets. It's amazing that a 200 year-old living oak tree can survive and grow using only the support of a very thin layer of tissue beneath the bark. The rest of the 199 growth rings are mostly inactive. In a coastal redwood, though, the xylem is mostly made up of tracheids that move water slowly to the top of the tree.
Image: PURDUE UNIVERSITY
Now that we have described the pathway that water follows through the xylem, we can talk about the mechanism involved. Water has two characteristics that make it a unique liquid. First, water adheres to many surfaces with which it comes into contact. Second, water molecules can also cohere, or hold on to each other. These two features allow water to be pulled like a rubber band up small capillary tubes like xylem cells.
Water has energy to do work: it carries chemicals in solution, adheres to surfaces and makes living cells turgid by filling them. This energy is called potential energy. At rest, pure water has 100 percent of its potential energy, which is by convention set at zero. As water begins to move, its potential energy for additional work is reduced and becomes negative. Water moves from areas with the least negative potential energy to areas where the potential energy is more negative. For example, the most negative water potential in a tree is usually found at the leaf-atmosphere interface; the least negative water potential is found in the soil, where water moves into the roots of the tree. As you move up the tree the water potential becomes more negative, and these differences create a pull or tension that brings the water up the tree.
A key factor that helps create the pull of water up the tree is the loss of water out of the leaves through a process called transpiration. During transpiration, water vapor is released from the leaves through small pores or openings called stomates. Stomates are present in the leaf so that carbon dioxide--which the leaves use to make food by way of photosynthesis--can enter. The loss of water during transpiration creates more negative water potential in the leaf, which in turn pulls more water up the tree. So in general, the water loss from the leaf is the engine that pulls water and nutrients up the tree.
How can water withstand the tensions needed to be pulled up a tree? The trick is, as we mentioned earlier, the ability of water molecules to stick to each other and to other surfaces so strongly. Given that strength, the loss of water at the top of tree through transpiration provides the driving force to pull water and mineral nutrients up the trunks of trees as mighty as the redwoods.