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The strength of plants: theory and experimental methods to measure the mechanical properties of stems

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Shah, DU 
Reynolds, TPS 
Ramage, MH 


From the stems of agricultural crops to the structural trunks of trees, studying the mechanical behaviour of plant stems is critical for both commerce and science. Plant scientists are also increasingly relying on mechanical test data for plant phenotyping. Yet there are neither standardized methods nor systematic reviews of current methods for the testing of herbaceous stems. We discuss the architecture of plant stems and highlight important micro- and macrostructural parameters that need to be controlled and accounted for when designing test methodologies, or that need to be understood in order to explain observed mechanical behaviour. Then, we critically evaluate various methods to test structural properties of stems, including flexural bending (two-, three-, and four-point bending) and axial loading (tensile, compressive, and buckling) tests. Recommendations are made on best practices. This review is relevant to fundamental studies exploring plant biomechanics, mechanical phenotyping of plants, and the determinants of mechanical properties in cell walls, as well as to application-focused studies, such as in agro-breeding and forest management projects, aiming to understand deformation processes of stem structures. The methods explored here can also be extended to other elongated, rod-shaped organs (e.g. petioles, midribs, and even roots).



bending, biomechanics, cell wall, metrology, phenotyping, stem, stiffness, strength, structure-property relations, tensile properties

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Journal of Experimental Botany

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Oxford University Press
Leverhulme Trust (RP2013-SL-008)
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/M01679X/1)
This work is part of a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Project title: ‘Natural material innovation’). The project forms a collaboration with the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Department of Biochemistry, Department of Chemistry, and Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge.