Lately, we have been getting a lot of questions about what might be wrong with my tree. And the answer has been girdling roots. Why is that? What are girdling roots? Should we be concerned about them? Let’s go over it! 

What are Girdling Roots? 

Girdling Roots are roots that wrap around other roots and the trunk/base of the tree. They can be above ground or underground. In the picture sent in by a local client, you can see small girdling roots wrapping around the base/other roots.

Why are they a problem? 

These types of roots are an issue because they wrap around the base of the tree and the other roots like a belt around your waist. They get tighter and tighter over time. The xylem and phloem are the main transportation systems in the tree. They transport nutrients and water throughout the tree. They are similar to your veins. 

When the xylem and phloem are squeezed and compressed by girdling roots, the roots are cutting off the nutrients and water to certain parts of the tree. When this happens, the structure of the tree is compromised over a period of time. 

What causes Girdling Roots? 

There are multiple explanations for why this can happen. It typically happens more often in urban areas, as they are more compacted and disrupted than a natural environment. Improper planting can be a cause as well. The hole you plant your tree in has to be the correct size. If the hole is too small, the roots cannot spread. If the hole is too big, then the flare ends up being covered with dirt and the roots wrap around the base to reach for air and water towards the surface. 

Often trees come in pots when you purchase them for planting. When moving the tree from this pot to the hole, the soil in the root system needs to be loosened up so that the roots don’t grow the wrong way, rather they will grow out instead. If you are planting your tree in clay soil, it may have a more difficult time growing roots out, so they may girdle in response. Lastly, in urban settings, it is often nice to put mulch around the base of a tree for curb appeal, however, if too much mulch is at the base, the roots will girdle while searching for air and water through the mulch. Mulch can be suffocating as well. Prevention when planting is the key! 

Which trees in Western Michigan are susceptible? 

As mentioned before, urban trees are always more susceptible to girdling root. Maples are extremely susceptible, and they are most commonly planted in urban areas. Other trees that are susceptible to girdling roots are beeches, lindens, pines, oaks, poplars, and elms. These are also found in our ecosystem from the lakeshore in.

When do Girdling Roots become an issue? 

First, they start small. And spread over several years. Over the course of these years, the structure of the tree starts to decline. As mentioned before, nutrients, water, and sap flow are cut off. This can lead to dead branches, rot, and more. When the structure is compromised, the tree is at risk of damaging roofs, fences, porches, etc. It is important to check your trees for any abnormalities and have a tree care professional assess it. 

So how do I know I have Girdling Roots? 

Sometimes you can obviously see the girdling roots around the base of the tree when they are above ground. However, other times they are underground, and it is hard to tell. So, what happens then? How do you know if you have them or not?

Take note of when the leaves appear and when they fall on the specific trees in your yard. This is important to know because if you have a smaller number of leaves emerge year after year, otherwise known as thinning of the canopy, it is a sign that girdling roots may be present.

Also, if the leaves change color and drop before they normally do in the fall, it is a sign of girdling roots. Dead branches are a sign of girdling roots. This could also mean that they may have been present for a while and are starting to cause structural damage. And the number one sign to look for is a root flare at the base of the tree. Trees naturally flare, but if there isn’t a flare present, girdling roots are most likely present. A flare that isn’t present will make the tree to look more similar to a pole in the ground.

So what do you do about it?

Reach out to a tree care professional for a professional opinion on the damage to your tree. It is important to ensure that structural damage isn’t occurring. But if you want to look for yourself, dig up a little bit of soil to look for the roots. If you do find them, check with a professional to determine if you can cut and remove them at home, or if they are too big and special concern needs to be taken in selection. 

After removing the girdling roots, make sure you water and fertilize your other roots. Even though girdling roots aren’t great, they still collect water and nutrients. Fertilizing and watering can help promote recovery. Be sure to continue watching the tree over the next few years for signs of girdling roots returning. Some trees need to be removed if the structural damage has gone too far. Be sure to keep up on regular maintenance on your trees such as proper trimming, which you can find more information on in the article below! And always feel free to reach out to us for our professional opinion on your tree!