Water is the most limiting factor in dryland ecosystems, and plants are adapted to cope with this constraint. Particularly vulnerable are phreatophytic plants from groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) in regions that have to face water regime alterations due to the impacts of climate and land-use changes.
We investigated two aspects related to the water-use strategy of a keystone species that dominates one of the few terrestrial GDEs in European drylands (Ziziphus lotus): where it obtains water and how it regulates its use. We (1) evaluated plants’ water sources and use patterns using a multiple-isotope approach (δ2H, δ18O, and Δ13C); (2) assessed the regulation of plant water potential by characterizing the species on an isohydric–anisohydric continuum; and (3) evaluated plants’ response to increasing water stress along a depth-to-groundwater (DTGW) gradient by measuring foliar gas exchange and nutrient concentrations.
Ziziphus lotus behaves as a facultative or partial phreatophyte with extreme anisohydric stomatal regulation. However, as DTGW increased, Z. lotus (1) reduced the use of groundwater, (2) reduced total water uptake, and (3) limited transpiration water loss while increasing water-use efficiency. We also found a physiological threshold at 14 m depth to groundwater, which could indicate maximum rooting length beyond which optimal plant function could not be sustained.
Species such as Z. lotus survive by squandering water in drylands because of a substantial groundwater uptake. However, the identification of DTGW thresholds indicates that drawdowns in groundwater level would jeopardize the functioning of the GDE.