Posts Tagged ‘circling roots’

Last February I wrote about the bare-root transplant of a large Katsura tree (Cercidophyllum japonicum) at UMass, beautifully executed by the pros at Foti Landscape and Tree. Matt Foti just sent me a photo he took last week of the tree, which has settled into its new home nicely.

Though the crew kept a large slug of soil under the tree’s butt for the move, Matt told me that they did some excavation at the root flare, as they always do, to check for girdling, circling, or damaged roots. (I hadn’t noticed the excavation when I first saw the transplant photos, but if you click back to that post you’ll notice it.) The crew found a girdling root and removed it — and clearly, from this current photo, the tree didn’t skip a beat.

Even in a backlit shot on a very hot day this tree is looking happy.

Even in a backlit shot on a very hot day this tree is looking happy.

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Last year I worked on a large mall planting project.  A number of trees had to be pulled out to make way for a new parking layout; the islands they had been growing in were removed and paved over, with new islands located in a different configuration.  Most of the trees were hauled away by the landscape contractor, but one ended up in a discard pile next to the mountain of loam that had been excavated for reuse.

I was interested in the root configuration on this six-inch caliper red maple.  A mass of fibrous roots wrapped closely around the tree’s trunk, much like cotton-candy filaments spun around a paper cone.  Looking at it more closely, I found that the fibrous roots grew out of thicker woody roots, some of which had been cut during the tree’s original ball-and-burlapping, and some of which, growing since that operation, were circling the trunk.  Take a look:

Fibrous roots circling the six-inch red maple trunk.

Pulled away from the trunk, the roots clearly are circling it. Over time, as the tree grew in girth, these roots likely would have constricted the flow of nutrients between root mass and crown

This sort of circling root is usually seen when the soil mass in a B&B root ball is of different porosity from the soil surrounding it; moisture will not move from one soil mass to the other until one mass is completely saturated.  Because roots tend to grow where moisture and oxygen are available, they will often stay within the root ball, and circle around the trunk as they grow.  The problem is made worse when burlap is not pulled away from the ball, as the burlap constitutes yet another interface for the moisture to move through.

Here's the tree's underside. Note the girdling root snaking on top of the big torn root facing the camera, and the curiously self-contained look of this root mass. The tree's problems likely began early in its life.

Not every B&B tree has these problems, and in those that do, not every rooting problem can be remedied at planting time.  Judicious treatment — looking for circling roots that can become girdling roots, cutting back girdling roots and cutting or redirecting circling roots, roughing up the sides of the root ball, removing or cutting down wire baskets, pulling down or removing burlap — can go a long way in helping B&B trees establish better in the landscape, and in remedying problems that threaten a tree’s long-term health and viability.  For more discussion on root issues affecting B&B trees, check out this post on Matt Foti’s station at the MAA’s Elm Bank bare-root workshop in September 2009.

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If you’ve been interested in the issues on this blog, you might well want to look into another blog, this one written by four horticulture professors.  They’re each based somewhere different — Washington State, Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota — and they write with humor and expertise about plants and plant issues.  The Garden Professors started posting in July 2009.  They talk about root-washing, propagation, nursery practices, soil contaminants, slugs, rubber mulch — you name it, they’re addressing it.  A recent post highlighted the air-tool transplant of a beautiful 10″ caliper weeping white pine by a Michigan State University Nursery Management class and the MSU arborist. — take a look for some good pix and clear, personable, often funny writing about a great range of up-to-the-minute plant issues.

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I was shuffling through some photos today, hunting for an illustration of girdling roots, thinking that I’d use one of a myriad of pix I have of subgrade snarlups.  But this picture popped up, and it seemed useful to show how a root that seems insignificant in infancy can grow to have an adverse effect on the health of the tree from which it springs.

These two girdling roots started out as thin, wirelike strands growing past the trunk of a sapling.

These two girdling roots started out as thin, wirelike strands growing past the trunk of a sapling.

This tree is a Norway maple in our backyard  (yes, we still have a couple of them).  From its position in the lawn I’m betting that someone planted it.  At the time of planting, it would have been a small tree — perhaps a 5-foot sapling dug from the yard’s border and moved to the lawn, or maybe one of the 1.5″ caliper whips given away by our town one year.

If you envision the young transplant then, you’ll imagine those two girdling roots as a couple of very thin, quite insignificant-looking roots, running parallel to and about two feet away from the trunk of that skinny tree.  They might have been considered circling roots, they might simply have just gotten twisted the wrong way in planting and continued to grow straight past the trunk.

As the tree grew in height it also grew in girth; the crown branched out, the trunk got thicker.  As the trunk got thicker, the roots and branches thickened.  A harmless condition in the tree’s juvenile days has turned into a bit of a problem in its middle age.  Now the skinny roots have fattened up, and have begun to squeeze the vascular tissue in the roots runny radially out from the trunk.  Bark above the girdling roots is traumatized (and not just by the squirrels that run up and down every morning) by constriction.  There’s a bit of dieback in the crown this year — though that may have been caused by something else (winter breakage invaded by fungus? Norway maple cussedness?)

The solution?  Chiseling the girdling roots away from the constricted roots to free up that vascular system could help, though at this stage it would be interesting to see if that section of root and trunk flare could really recover.  I have been using the Norway maples in the yard — the two mature ones, and a small thicket of saplings — as a small laboratory, so will keep watching to see what happens here.  Feel free to comment below….

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As you may know, this blog started as a series of posts on our other blog, Taking Place.  I branched it off that blog to avoid unbalancing the whole endeavor, and began posting on woody plant issues here.  I am currently working on copying older posts from Taking Place over to this blog as well (they’ll remain at Taking Place, too, as they are important there) — but it’s taking me a while.

So — if you want to read older posts on bare-root transplanting (root-washing and air-tool excavation), or on woody plants in design and woody plant management, you’ll be able to read current (from August onward) posts here, but will have to wait a bit for the older ones to arrive on this site.  If you just can’t wait, though, you can see all my pre-Taking Place In The Trees woody plants posts by clicking on the highlighted name — Taking Place — in the first paragraph.  That blog will then pop up.

Once that happens, scroll down and click on ‘Plants’ in the Categories list to the right of the page; doing so will make the list of tree and shrub posts pop up.  Scan through the list, and click on whatever title interests you to bring up the whole post, including some excellent photos.

And if you like what you see and read, take a look at the rest of the Taking Place site — there are some dandy photos and lots of observations on landscape architecture, design, and how we live in the green world.

Cute little dwarf liquidambar, freed from its container and soil washed away with the hose, ready to have its circling roots unwound, spread radially (as best as possible), and planted.

Cute little 'Gumball' dwarf Liquidambar, freed from its container and soil washed away with the hose, ready to have its circling roots unwound, spread radially (as best as possible), and planted.

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