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Measurement of tree root systems by conventional methods is a Herculean task. The electrical capacitance method offers a rapid and non-destructive alternative, but it has largely been restricted to herbaceous species. The Dalton Model has been the main concept for understanding equivalent root circuitry; it proposed that roots were cylindrical capacitors with epidermis and xylem being the external and internal electrodes. Capacitance (C) therefore varied in proportion to root surface area (A), mass (M), length (L) and relative permittivity of the plant tissue ε(r). We used the capacitance method on forest and plantation trees (13 to circa 100 y.o.) in situ to test hypotheses derived from implicit assumptions about tree-root-soil circuitry. We concluded: C was not confounded by intermingled root systems; C was strongly related to diameter at breast height (DBH); C was less strongly related to DBH for multiple species at the same site; and C was a poor indicator of DBH, M and L across species, ages and sites. We proposed that ε(r) was proportional to root tissue density ρ and fitted a model with P < 0.05 and R(2) = 0.70 when the three immature (13 y.o.) trees were excluded. There was no significant difference (P = 0.28) between the parameters of the tree model (excluding the immature trees) and one of the same form fitted to data from bean (Vicia faba L.; R(2) = 0.55). Together, the data sets suggested (R(2) = 0.94; n = 26) that there may exist a general relationship of this form applied over two orders of magnitude of L.


Tim W Ellis, Wayne Murray, Keryn Paul, Laimonis Kavalieris, Jim Brophy, Chris Williams, Manuel Maass. Electrical capacitance as a rapid and non-invasive indicator of root length. Tree physiology. 2013 Jan;33(1):3-17

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PMID: 23243029

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