How do trees carry water from the soil around their roots to the leaves at the top?
Once inside the cells of the root, water enters into a system of interconnected cells that make up the wood of the tree and extend from the roots through the stem and branches and into the leaves. The scientific name for wood tissue is xylem; it consists of a few different kinds of cells. The cells that conduct water (along with dissolved mineral nutrients) are long and narrow and are no longer alive when they function in water transport. Some of them have open holes at their tops and bottoms and are stacked more or less like concrete sewer pipes. Other cells taper at their ends and have no complete holes. All have pits in their cell walls, however, through which water can pass.
Water moves from one cell to the next when there is a pressure difference between the two. Because these cells are dead, they cannot be actively involved in pumping water. It might seem possible that living cells in the roots could generate high pressure in the root cells, and to a limited extent this process does occur. But common experience tells us that water within the wood is not under positive pressure—in fact, it is under negative pressure, or suction. To convince yourself of this, consider what happens when a tree is cut or when a hole is drilled into the stem. If there were positive pressure in the stem, you would expect a stream of water to come out, which rarely happens. In reality, the suction that exists within the water conducting cells arises from the evaporation of water molecules from the leaves. Each water molecule has both positive and negative electrically charged parts. As a result, water molecules tend to stick to one another; that adhesion is why water forms rounded droplets on a smooth surface and does not spread out into a completely flat film. As one water molecule evaporates through a pore in a leaf, it exerts a small pull on adjacent water molecules, reducing the pressure in the water-conducting cells of the leaf and drawing water from adjacent cells. This chain of water molecules extends all the way from the leaves down to the roots and even extends out from the roots into the soil. So the simple answer is that the sun’s energy does it: Heat from the sun causes the water to evaporate, setting the water chain in motion.