Skip to main content
SLU publication database (SLUpub)
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Vascular optimality dictates plant morphology away from Leonardo's rule

Sopp, S. B. D.; Valbuena, R.


Metabolic scaling theory (MST) provides an understanding of scaling in organismal morphology. Empirical data on the apparently universal pattern of tip-to-base conduit widening across vascular plants motivate a set of generalized MST (gMST) relationships allowing for variable rates of conduit coalescence and taper and a transition between transport and diffusive domains. Our model, with coalescence limited to the distalmost part of the conductive system, reconciles previous MST-based models and extends their applicability to the entire plant. We derive an inverse relationship between stem volume taper and conduit widening, which implies that plant morphology is dictated by vascular optimality and not the assumption of constant sapwood area across all branching levels, contradicting Leonardo's rule. Thus, energy efficiency controls conduit coalescence rate, lowering the carbon cost needed to sustain the vascular network. Our model shows that as a plant grows taller, it must increase conduit widening and coalescence, which may make it more vulnerable to drought. We calculated how our gMST model implies a lower carbon cost to sustain a similar network compared to previous MST-based models. We also show that gMST predicts the cross-sectional area of vessels and their frequency along the relative length better than previous MST models for a range of plant types. We encourage further research obtaining data that would allow testing other gMST predictions that remain unconfirmed empirically, such as conduit coalescence rate in stems. The premise of energy efficiency can potentially become instrumental to our understanding of plant carbon allocation.


metabolic scaling theory; plant science; ecology

Published in

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
2023, Volume: 120, number: 39, article number: e2215047120

    Associated SLU-program

    SLU Plant Protection Network

    UKÄ Subject classification


    Publication identifier


    Permanent link to this page (URI)