BackgroundElectrical capacitance, measured between an electrode inserted at the base of a plant and an electrode in the rooting substrate, is often linearly correlated with root mass. Electrical capacitance has often been used as an assay for root mass, and is conventionally interpreted using an electrical model in which roots behave as cylindrical capacitors wired in parallel. Recent experiments in hydroponics show that this interpretation is incorrect and a new model has been proposed. Here, the new model is tested in solid substrates.MethodsThe capacitances of compost and soil were determined as a function of water content, and the capacitances of cereal plants growing in sand or potting compost in the glasshouse, or in the field, were measured under contrasting irrigation regimes.Key ResultsCapacitances of compost and soil increased with increasing water content. At water contents approaching field capacity, compost and soil had capacitances at least an order of magnitude greater than those of plant tissues. For plants growing in solid substrates, wetting the substrate locally around the stem base was both necessary and sufficient to record maximum capacitance, which was correlated with stem cross-sectional area: capacitance of excised stem tissue equalled that of the plant in wet soil. Capacitance measured between two electrodes could be modelled as an electrical circuit in which component capacitors (plant tissue or rooting substrate) are wired in series.ConclusionsThe results were consistent with the new physical interpretation of plant capacitance. Substrate capacitance and plant capacitance combine according to standard physical laws. For plants growing in wet substrate, the capacitance measured is largely determined by the tissue between the surface of the substrate and the electrode attached to the plant. Whilst the measured capacitance can, in some circumstances, be correlated with root mass, it is not a direct assay of root mass.