Abstract Adaptation to future climates characterized by more frequent severe droughts requires enhanced mechanistic understanding of tree mortality. However, our knowledge of the physiological limits to withstand extreme drought, and how the coordination between water and carbon traits enhances survival, is still limited. Potted seedlings of Pinus massoniana were dehydrated to three target droughts (percentage loss of stem hydraulic conductivity of ca. 50%, 85%, and 100%; PLC50, PLC85 and PLC100) and then relieved from these target droughts by fully rewatering. Predawn and midday water potentials (Ψ), relative water content (RWC), PLC and nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) were monitored. During drought, Ψ and RWC declined as PLC increased. Root RWC declined more rapidly than other organ RWCs, particularly after PLC50 stress. All organ NSC concentrations were above predrought values. During rewatering, water trait recovery declined as drought increased, with no mortality at PLC50 but 75% mortality at PLC85. The observed stem hydraulic recovery at PLC50 following rewatering was not correlated to NSC dynamics. Collectively, our results highlighted the primary role of hydraulic failure in Pinus massoniana seedling mortality by assessing mortality threshold and links among water status and water supply. Root RWC can be considered as a potential warning signal of P. massoniana mortality.