Understanding plant water relations and root biomechanics for hydro-mechanical reinforcement of slopes

  • David Boldrin

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Vegetation stabilises slopes via both mechanical reinforcement (through root anchorage) and hydrologic reinforcement (through transpiration-induced soil matric suction). However, relatively little is known about the effectiveness of different plant species in stabilising soil slopes via the two reinforcing mechanisms, and so decisions on species selection are seldom made with optimisation of slope reinforcement in mind. In this thesis, a comprehensive testing programme including laboratory, glasshouse and field experiments is designed and implemented, with the aim to quantify and investigate the transpiration-induced hydrologic reinforcement and root biomechanical properties during the early plant establishment of selected woody species, widespread under European temperate climate.
Ten species native to Europe (Buxus sempervirens L.; Corylus avellana L.; Crataegus monogyna Jacq.; Cytisus scoparius (L.) Link; Euonymus europaeus L.; Ilex aquifolium L.; Ligustrum vulgare L.; Prunus spinosa L.; Salix viminalis L. and Ulex europaeus L.) were investigated in a glasshouse experiment to understand any relation of transpiration induced hydrologic reinforcement with above- and below-ground plant traits (e.g. specific leaf area; root length density). The ten species showed large differences in terms of water uptake, which translated to significant differences in matric suction and soil strength. Species with the largest water uptake increased soil strength more than ten times that in fallow soil. Specific leaf area, root length density and root:shoot ratio were best correlated with the induced hydrologic reinforcement provided by the ten tested species. These results supplied essential species information for designing the subsequent experiments.
Based on the previous findings, three representative yet contrasting species (Corylus avellana, Ilex aquifolim and Ulex europaeus) were selected and planted in 1-m soil columns to investigate the effects of season (i.e. summer vs winter), plant functional type (i.e. deciduous vs evergreen) and soil depth on the magnitude and distribution of transpiration-induced matric suction and the associated soil strength gain. Evergreens could slowly induce matric suction and hence potentially stabilise soil during winter. However, there were very large differences between the tested evergreens (I. aquifolium and U. europaeus). Indeed, only U. europaeus provided matric suction and soil strength gain along the entire depth-profile because of its fast growth (above- and below-ground).
A full-scale field experiment was also performed to provide ground-truth data on the extent of variation in hydrologic reinforcement among species, hence validating the glasshouse results obtained in the first two studies. The two-year field experiment yielded a similar ranking to the glasshouse experiments in terms of the species ability to rapidly develop matric suction and soil strength. In particular, the evergreen U. europaeus induced large matric suction (e.g. ≥ 70 kPa at 0.5 m depth) even during the early establishment period. Furthermore, this field research highlighted the greater (compared to other tested species) temporal effectiveness of U. europaeus, which was able to provide matric suction on the slope from early spring to late autumn. The greater ability of U. europaeus in inducing and preserving matric suction can be attributed to its large water uptake, which supports its fast growth, as well as to the notable interception loss provided by its canopy. Therefore, U. europaeus can represent a very suitable species for slope stabilisation under the temperate climate context.
Root biomechanical properties, including tensile strength and Young’s modulus, were investigated in the laboratory for the same ten species. The results highlighted a large variability in the tensile strength-diameter relations during the early stage establishment of plants, especially in thin roots with diameter ranging from 0.4 to 2.0 mm. The root tensile strength-diameter relationships highlighted three different trends. The common negative power relation between root tensile strength and diameter existed only for two out of the ten tested species (i.e. E. europaeus and U. europaeus). B. sempervirens, I. aquifolium and P. spinosa showed a slight increase in tensile strength with increasing root diameter. C. avellana, C. monogyna and L. vulgare consistently showed an initial increase in root tensile strength with increasing root diameter, reaching peak strength between 1.0 and 2.5 mm diameter. Beyond the peak strength, a reduction in strength was observed with increasing root dimeter. These bimodal trends might be partially explained by the differences in the development stage of root primary and secondary structures.
Root moisture content can be one of the factors inducing the observed large variability in root tensile strength. Therefore, the last part of this thesis assessed the effects of root drying on the root biomechanical properties of U. europaeus. Root strength and stiffness showed an abrupt increase when root water content dropped below 0.5 g g-1. The strength increase can be explained by the reduction in root diameter and by changes in root properties induced by the root water potential drop. Moreover, root water loss and root strength gain were diameter-dependent because of the relatively larger evaporative surface per volume of thin roots.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsEuropean Union
SupervisorAnthony Leung (Supervisor) & Glyn Bengough (Supervisor)


  • eco-engineering
  • hydro-mechanical reinforcement
  • root biomechanical properties

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