We compared the water-use characteristics of co-occurring mature Quercus cerris L. and Quercus pubescens Willd. trees growing in resource-limited (mainly water) hilly habitats in Tuscany, Italy. The species differed in their distribution along soil water gradients and in their access to, and use of, water, even though the study year was wetter than average, though with a summer drought. Compared with Q. cerris, Q. pubescens had greater access to soil water (less negative predawn water potentials) and a more conservative water-use strategy based on its relatively low stomatal conductance, high instantaneous water-use efficiency, less negative midday water potential and high soil-to-leaf hydraulic conductance. Quercus cerris had less conservative water-use characteristics than Q. pubescens, exhibiting relatively high stomatal conductance, low instantaneous water-use efficiency, more negative midday water potentials and low soil-to-leaf hydraulic conductance; however, Q. cerris had higher photosynthetic rates than Q. pubescens. Photosynthesis and stomatal conductance were positively correlated in both species. Although a strong correlation between ring widths and precipitation patterns was not found, some dry periods influenced ring-width growth. Quercus pubescens has always grown faster than Q. cerris, probably because of more efficient water use, although stand dynamics (driven by exogenous disturbance factors, including coppicing, browsing and competition) cannot be excluded. Ring-width variability, as well as tree-ring growth in dry years, which should be unaffected by stand dynamics, were higher in Q. pubescens than in Q. cerris. Moreover, Q. pubescens recovered completely after the drought in the seventies, even showing higher tree-ring growth than in the recent past, whereas Q. cerris showed a minor growth decline followed by a recovery to values comparable with those observed before the 1970s drought. Beginning in the early eighties, tree-ring growth decreased in both species, though Q. pubescens showed consistently higher values than Q. cerris. These differences can be explained by differences in water-use efficiency. Despite differences between the species in water use and water status, the results are consistent with the interpretation that both are drought tolerant, but that Q. pubescens is at an advantage on xeric ridges because of its greater ability to access soil water and use it more conservatively compared with Q. cerris.