Maize (Zea mays L.) plants parasitized by the root hemi-parasitic angiosperm, Striga hermonthica (Del.) Benth., consistently display a range of symptoms similar to those found in droughted plants. The mechanisms by which these changes occur are largely unknown. However, S. hermonthica has unusually high rates of transpiration, and stomata which are relatively insensitive to water deficit. Consequently, it has often been suggested that the parasite might cause a severe depletion of the available water in the host's rooting zone. To determine whether the lower stomatal conductance and retarded growth of infected plants could be a result of parasite-induced water deficit, we have monitored the matric potential of the growth medium, water use, growth and stomatal conductance of infected vs. uninfected maize plants.
Host plant height and stomatal conductance of parasitized plants were significantly lower than those of control plants from 31 or 37 d after planting (d.a.p.) respectively. However, there was no indication of an increase in the rate of water depletion in the rooting zone of infected plants until approx. 63 d into the parasitic association. In fact, from 39 until 59 d.a.p. infected plants used less water than uninfected control plants, probably the result of the plants having fewer expanded leaves during part of this period, combined with the lower stomatal conductance exhibited by the infected plants from day 37 onwards. Leaf RWC of infected plants was unchanged in comparison with that of uninfected plants, therefore the change in stomatal conductance was not a response to dehydration of the leaf tissue. Our results indicate that parasitism by S. hermonthica does not cause an increase in water uptake/use in the host until well after most of the symptoms of infection have become fully established. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that the observed effects on the host are primarily due to soil water deficit.