A noninvasive optical system for the measurement of xylem and phloem sap flow in woody plants of small stem size

Carole Helfter, Jonathan D. Shephard, Jordi Martínez-Vilalta, Maurizio Mencuccini, Duncan P. Hand

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29 Citations (Scopus)


Over the past 70 years, heat has been widely used as a tracer for estimating the flow of water in woody and herbaceous plants. However, most commercially available techniques for monitoring whole plant water use are invasive and the measurements are potentially flawed because of wounding of the xylem tissue. The study of photosynthate transport in the phloem remains in its infancy, and little information about phloem transport rates is available owing to the fragility of the vascular tissue. The aim of our study was to develop a compact, stand-alone non-invasive system allowing for direct detection of phloem and xylem sap movement. The proposed method uses a heat pulse as a tracer for sap flow. Heat is applied to the surface of the stem with a near-infrared laser source, and heat propagation is monitored externally by means of an infrared camera. Heat pulse velocities are determined from the thermometric data and related to the more useful quantity, mass flow rate. Simulation experiments on the xylem tissue of severed silver birch (Betula pendula Roth.) branch segments were performed to assess the feasibility of the proposed approach, highlight the characteristics of the technique and outline calibration strategies. Good agreement between imposed and measured flow rates was achieved leading to experimentation with live silver birch and oak (Quercus robur L.) saplings. It was demonstrated that water flow through xylem vessels can be monitored non-invasively on an intact stem with satisfactory accuracy despite simultaneous sugar transport in the phloem. In addition, it was demonstrated that the technique allows for unequivocal detection of phloem flow velocities. © 2007 Heron Publishing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-179
Number of pages11
JournalTree Physiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2007


  • Heat pulse technique
  • Single-sensor
  • Surface measurements


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