Stomata are “microscopic pores which mediate the uptake of CO2 and loss of water from terrestrial plant leaves”ref The pores exist in the cuticle of the leaf (refer back to Leaf Structure to learn about the cuticle). You can see a scanning electron microscope image of stomata below:
The stomata are the dark holes in the pictures, and each one is controlled by two guard cells. The guard cells bend or straighten to enlarge or close the hole, this controls the amount of air which can enter, and the amount of water vapour which can get out. The world of stomata is illustrated in beautiful detail on the Plant Stomata blog, and what you notice is just how symmetrical and perfect looking stomata are, even though they are only 20-70μm in size. In fact the creation of guard cells is choreographed by a gene known as MUTE – it triggers one round of cell division, then acts to stop any further division, resulting in one stomata with two guard cellsref.
Stomata are the interface between the inside of the leaf and the outside world. They are “typically fully open under conditions favouring photosynthesis, but close when water supply is limited.”ref They operate a control system which responds to several factors including CO2 and water levels – lower CO2 levels within the leaf space will open the stomata as will higher water levels and/or humidity. In most plants stomata close at night, since CO2 is not being used by photosynthesis, but some also operate on a circadian rhythm – opening before dawn or closing for a period at midday (Vogel).
Stomata control the most fundamental life-giving processes of plants, and as such are an ancient structure, found on plant fossils from 400 million years agoref, basically from when plants first grew on land. As a result, stomata patterns can be used for paleontology, and for genus (and sometimes species) identification.
Stomata are distributed on bottom of leaves, and sometimes on the top as well. The guard cells have different shapes, including crescent, rectangular, dome and triangularref, and in conifers they are often sunk into the leaf, surrounded by structures and/or contain wax plugs. They are arranged in different patterns as part of the overall epidermal structure, so appear in rows in certain species, and in between the pavement cells in different patterns in others.
This photographer (http://www.foto-vision.at/) produces amazing microscope images of leaf and stem cross-sections. Below is a pinus mugo needle – look closely at the cuticle and you can see dark spaces where the stomata are, surrounded by the guard cells stained in bright orange.
Guard cells work by inflating with water – since they are pinned at each end, and stiff (in conifers the guard cells often have lignin in them) – when water enters the cells they bend outwards. To inflate, they transport positively charged potassium ions inward – this attracts negatively charged ions (like chloride) and water then is attracted as well to dissipate the concentration of ions back to baseline levels. Pressures generated by guard cells are surprisingly high – from 2-40 atmospheres,or 16-320x the normal blood pressure generated by humans (Vogel).
So aside from providing enlightenment, how does knowing about stomata aid your bonsai practice? Well to start with, more stomata provide more photosynthesising capability and hence more growth potential (assuming water availability). The number of stomata created on a leaf is not just genetic, but is impacted by the environment -“in a number of species both light intensity and CO2 concentrations have been shown to influence the frequency at which stomata develop on leaves.”ref So putting your trees out in the sunlight will increase the number of stomata – this is determined by the mature leaves being in the sunlight – they use ‘long-distance signalling’ to developing leaves to produce more stomataref. Researchers hypothesise this signalling is probably mediated through plant hormones, but it’s not currently known exactly how.
One bonsai practice which relates to stomata is the use of anti-transpirants. This is sometimes used after collecting a yamadori. It’s promoted to ‘protect leaves’ from various environmental challenges (heat, dryness, wind) and to ‘reduce excessive transpiration’. The product is “a film-forming complex of polyethylenes and polyterpenes that when applied to foliage will reduce the moisture vapor transmission rate”ref – so basically you are spraying plastic onto the leaves and blocking the stomata.
My guess on this product is that most people are not spraying the bottoms of the leaves which is where the majority of stomata are located. This will indeed reduce transpiration (from the top of the leaf) but not prevent photosynthesis or gas exchange, because really most of the stomata are unaffected. I don’t really like the idea of spraying plastic on my trees though, and don’t think it should be necessary – if a plant is transpiring ‘excessively’ it needs more water, or it needs to be removed from the environment causing the transpiration (out of the wind or direct sun). Creating more humidity should have a similar effect (for example by covering with a plastic bag).
One situation where it may be justified might be when collecting yamadori, when more root has been removed than foliage, and the roots simply can’t keep up with the transpiration rate. Reducing the transpiration for a period of time would allow the roots to grow whilst keeping the foliage (otherwise in bonsai you would have to remove the foliage to match the root capability). But again, a plastic bag might work just as well, without the need for spray.