• The rare pit hypothesis predicts that the extensive inter-vessel pitting in large early-wood vessels of ring-porous trees should render many of these vessels extremely vulnerable to cavitation by air-seeding. This prediction was tested in Quercus gambelii. • Cavitation was assessed from native hydraulic conductivity at field sap tension and in dehydrated branches. Single-vessel air injections gave air-seeding pressures through vessel files; these data were used to estimate air-seeding pressures for inter-vessel walls and pits. • Extensive cavitation occurred at xylem sap tensions below 1 MPa. Refilling occurred below 0.5 MPa and was inhibited by phloem girdling. Remaining vessels cavitated over a wide range to above 4 MPa. Similarly, 40% of injected vessel files air-seeded below 1.0 MPa, whereas the remainder seeded over a wide range exceeding 5 MPa. Inter-vessel walls averaged 1.02 MPa air-seeding pressure, similar and opposite to the mean cavitation tension of 1.22 MPa. Consistent with the rare pit hypothesis, only 7% of inter-vessel pits were estimated to air-seed by 1.22 MPa. • The results confirm the rare pit prediction that a significant fraction of large vessels in Q. gambelii experience high probability of failure by air-seeding.
© 2011 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2011 New Phytologist Trust.