How and When Does Water Stress Impact Plant Growth and Development?

Adapted by Krista Pearson from a presentation by Dr. Jim Bauder1, Extension Soil and Water Quality Specialist, Montana State University-Bozeman

What is plant water stress?
Plant water stress, often times caused by drought, can have major impacts on plant growth and development. When it comes to crops, plant water stress can be the cause of lower yields and possible crop failure. The effects of plant water stress vary between plant species. Early recognition of water stress symptoms can be critical to maintaining the growth of a crop. The most common symptom of plant water stress is wilt. As the plant undergoes water stress, the water pressure inside the leaves decreases and the plant wilts. Drying to a condition of wilt will reduce growth on nearly any plant.

From an irrigator's perspective, managing water to minimize stress means knowing plant water availability, recognizing symptoms of water stress, and planning ahead. This article outlines how water stress impacts plant growth and development and how to anticipate plant water stress to minimize negative consequences.

How does water stress impact plant growth and development?
Plants take in water through their roots. The amount of force needed for a plant to remove water from the soil is known as the matric potential. When soil moisture is low, plants have to use more energy to remove water from the soil, thus the matric potential is greater. When the soil is dry and the matric potential is strong, plants show symptoms of stress. This is known as the matric effect.

Plants can also have difficulties extracting water from the soil if salts are present in the root zone. Generally, when the soil solution is more saline than the plant, more energy is needed to uptake water than if the soil solution is not saline. Plant water stress caused by saline conditions is known as the osmotic effect. Stress from the osmotic effect will cause the same symptoms as stress from the matric effect.

Salinity as a stress factor
In places where both salinity and drought are present, plants must overcome matric and osmotic forces to uptake water. If the osmotic effect is strong (high salinity), then the matric force (how dry the soil is) needs to be minimized to reduce the combined effect of matric and osmotic forces. Simply stated, more water needs to be added to the soil to minimize the effects of plant water stress in saline soils.

Most water for irrigated crops is extracted from shallow soil depths where the majority of the roots are. In the first few days following irrigation, 40% or more of plant water comes from the top twelve inches of soil. Plants use roots to uptake water from the soil, so adequate root density, distribution and conditions conducive to root growth are important in aiding plant utilization of water.

Why does water stress impact plant growth and development?
The main consequence of moisture stress is decreased growth and development caused by reduced photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process in which plants combine water, carbon dioxide and light to make carbohydrates for energy. Chemical limitations due to reductions in critical photosynthetic components such as water can negatively impact plant growth.

Low water availability can also cause physical limitations in plants. Stomates are plant cells that control movement of water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen into and out of the plant. During moisture stress, stomates close to conserve water. This also closes the pathway for the exchange of water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen resulting in decreases in photosynthesis. Leaf growth will be affected by moisture stress more than root growth because roots are more able to compensate for moisture stress.

How can plant water stress be managed?
Crop selection can be a key component when dealing with or anticipating moisture stress. Generalizations about plant groups and how they behave under moisture stress can be used to guide decisions about crop selection for drought and saline conditions.

Table 1. Crop selection for water stress management.
Crop type Water stress limitations Management tips
Determintate crops Resistant to water stress during vegetative stages. Avoid water stress during reproductive stages.
Indeterminate crops No specific critical periods. Sugarbeets are more stress tolerant than potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Forages Perennial forages are least affected by moisture stress in the long run. Concentrate irrigation efforts early in the season to maximize production.

How can the consequences of plant water stress be minimized?
Producers can minimize the consequences of plant water stress by learning how to manage it ahead of time. Water stress timing and crop selection choices can be very important details. If one had to prioritize to deal with moisture stress, the list might look a lot like this:

Water stress timing

Crop selection choices Lessons Learned
Anticipating low moisture availability and recognizing symptoms of plant water stress are the first steps to managing crops in drought and/or saline conditions. Low water availability may hinder photosynthesis causing reduced growth and decreased yields. Timing and crop selection are important factors in managing crops for water stress conditions.

A great source of readily available information can be found in online journals:

Other articles that may answer further questions about plant water stress and crop selection include:

1This presentation was given at the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America 2003 Annual Meetings held in Denver, Colorado.

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Questions/Comments: waterquality@montana.edu