In nut tree orchards in California, irrigation is typically withheld during the harvest period to reduce the likelihood of bark damage during mechanical shaking of the trees. The ensuing water stress, however, may result in premature defoliation and subsequent yield declines. Our objective was to establish and quantify the water stress resulting from irrigation deprivation and determine its impact on leaf function and persistence in mature almond trees (Prunus dulcis (Mill.) D.A. Webb cv. Nonpareil) during a 3-year field experiment. The severity of the water stress was characterized by measurements of predawn leaf (Psi(pd)) and midday stem (Psi(ms)) water potentials, stomatal conductance (gs), net CO2 assimilation rate (A) and leaf abscission. During 1995, Psi(ms) of fully irrigated (FI) trees was maintained above -1.0 MPa. In trees in the moderate- (MS) and severe-stress (SS) treatments, Psi(ms) was reduced to -1.4 to -2.0 MPa and -2.0 to -2.6 MPa, respectively. After 18 days of irrigation deprivation, A was reduced by 32 and 58% at midday and early afternoon, respectively, compared with morning values. A significant decrease in morning values of A only occurred after 30 days of irrigation deprivation. Water-use efficiency and A declined as evaporative demand increased from morning to afternoon. Assimilation also declined seasonally as leaves aged. Midday stem water potential was highly correlated with A, but less so with gs. The coefficient of determination between Psi(ms) and gs improved considerably when vapor pressure deficit and wind were multiply regressed with Psi(ms). Although A recovered rapidly when MS trees were irrigated, recovery in SS trees was slower and incomplete. Integrating the MS and SS effects for an extended period during 1995 resulted in 14 and 30% declines in A, and 6 and 20% declines in gs, respectively. The apparent Psi(ms) threshold for leaf abscission was -1.8 MPa. Daily canopy light interception declined with decreasing Psi(ms) as a result of premature defoliation (and perhaps altered leaf angles) from 67.9% in FI trees to 61.4 and 60.7% in MS and SS trees, respectively.
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