BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Previous studies on grass leaf tensile properties (behaviour during mechanical stress) have focused on agricultural applications such as resistance to trampling and palatability; no investigations have directly addressed mechanical properties during water stress, and hence these are the subject of this study.
METHODS: Critical (lethal) relative water contents were determined for three species of grass in the genus Eragrostis varying in their tolerance to drought. Measurements were taken for leaf tensile strength, elastic modulus, toughness and failure load under different conditions of hydration, and light microscopy and histochemical analyses were undertaken.
KEY RESULTS: Leaf tensile strength of fully hydrated leaves for the drought-intolerant E. capensis, the moderately drought-tolerant E. tef and the drought-tolerant E. curvula correlated well with drought tolerance (critical relative water content). Eragrostis curvula had higher tensile strength values than E. tef, which in turn had higher values than E. capensis. Measurements on the drought-tolerant grass E. curvula when fully hydrated and when dried to below its turgor loss point showed that tensile strength, toughness and the elastic modulus all increased under conditions of turgor loss, while the failure load remained unchanged. Additional tests of 100 mm segments along the lamina of E. curvula showed that tensile strength, toughness and the elastic modulus all decreased with distance from the base of the lamina, while again the failure load was unaffected. This decrease in mechanical parameters correlated with a reduction in the size of the vascular bundles and the amount of lignification, as viewed in lamina cross-sections.
CONCLUSIONS: The results confirm that leaf mechanical properties are affected by both water status and position along the lamina, and suggest a positive correlation between leaf internal architecture, tensile strength, cell wall chemistry and tolerance to dehydration for grasses.
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