Trees can be good plumbers

A short follow up to last weeks post on girdling roots.  Just to reiterate, the point of the post was that we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions when assessing tree problems.  It’s important to look beyond the first defect we see and consider additional causes.  And to also reiterate, girdling roots can be a serious problem and can lead to tree failures.  The photo below shows an example of tree that was both planted too deep and had stem girdling roots.  The result was a weakened area in the trunk, which was subject to breakage during a windstorm.

Many people also assume that girdling roots restrict flow of water and nutrients in the xylem.  They can, but trees also have the ability graft roots and re-establish connections between roots.  In the study I mentioned last week, Phillip Kurzeja and his co-workers  traced water flow in ’manifold roots’ (a series of interconnected, girdled roots) by injecting dye.  The trees were subsequently felled and de-barked, allowing the researchers to determine whether the roots were still functional.  As shown below the girdled roots were able to re-establish their vasculature and continue to translocate water up the stem. So trees can be efficient at fixing their own pipes!

Image: Phillip Kurzeja

It is important to note that this phenomenon occurs between roots but not between roots and the main trunk – hence the concern for impact of stem-girdling roots, especially for trees planted too deep.

2 thoughts on “Trees can be good plumbers”

  1. Bert,
    Can you please explain what you mean by the following:

    “The result was a weakened area in the trunk, which was subject to breakage during a windstorm.”

    Do you mean that the wood formed at the girdle site was physiologically different than other wood formed by this tree?

  2. Tim:
    That’s a good question. The wood formed at the girdle is certainly different – this type of breakage is not uncommon. How is it different? I suspect it’s a combination of reaction wood (weak wood comprised largely of cellulose formed in response to physical stress) and the fact that the girdling roots impede development of normal taper.

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