Growing a new tree brings with it a variety of challenges, many of which may take an unwary gardener by surprise. As you are growing your new tree, you may notice that it has begun growing a branch that is somehow different from the others. This unusual, fast growing branch might spring from the base of the tree, or up from the roots. At first, it appears to be just another part of your tree, but as time goes on you realize that it is not. Sometimes these unusual growths can produce fruit, but it will be of an inferior kind. Other times these branches will seem to be from a completely different tree.
These unusual growths can draw away valuable energy, making it very difficult for the tree to thrive. Depending on their origin, these growths are known as tree suckers, or watersprouts.
Tree suckers, also known as basal shoots, grow from the root system of the tree. They are commonly found on ornamental or fruit trees. Ornamental and fruiting trees are often spliced or grafted onto hardier rootstocks of a related variety. This helps the tree to survive in certain conditions but also places the root stock under a certain amount of stress. When the roots become stressed – which can occur for a variety of reasons – they attempt to reproduce themselves by growing tree suckers from their root systems.
These tree suckers then divert the plant’s energy away from fruit and flower growth, reducing the tree’s value as an ornamental or fruiting plant. If left unchecked, the rootstock species will completely starve the graft species, reverting the tree to a less desirable variety.
For example, if you have a pear tree, it will most likely be grafted onto a quince rootstock. If tree suckers are allowed to grow on this tree, soon enough the pear tree will be killed off and the quince will take over, meaning your pear tree will no longer yield pears.
Watersprouts are a similar phenomenon, except that they occur on the trunk or branches of the tree. When watersprouts grow, they often lack the same strength as the rest of the tree, and are therefore more susceptible to tree diseases and pest invasions. As a result, the whole tree is put at risk. Not only this, but watersprouts, which tend to grow vertically, can block other growth on the tree. This could prevent your tree from yielding fruit or flowering.
Watersprouts frequently arise after some kind of damage has been done to the tree, either from weather, over-pruning, or any number of other things. If a tree has not been pruned for some time and is then pruned heavily, this also can encourage the growth of watersprouts.
Fortunately, handling the problem of tree suckers and watersprouts is relatively easy if you know what you’re doing.
Managing and Removing Watersprouts & Tree Suckers
First and foremost, you should educate yourself on what these growths look like. Many people have assumed that these branches were just ordinary parts of the tree, and left them in place until it was too late. Remember that tree suckers grow upwards from the roots of the tree and watersprouts are small, weak branches that grow from the trunk or limbs.
The best way to handle tree suckers and watersprouts is prevention. The easiest way to do this is simply to keep your plants in good health. Remember that tree sucker growth is the plant’s response to stress! It’s best, then, to remove as many sources of stress to your tree as you possibly can. Make sure that the tree is properly watered and frequently inspect it for signs of disease. It’s also important to prune your tree regularly in a healthy manner. If you overprune your tree, this can also encourage the growth of watersprouts and tree suckers.
When you are pruning, make sure not to cut into any branches that are more than a few years old. If you see any unhealthy or damaged branches, remove them carefully, making sure to cut into healthy wood and not leave any dead or diseased areas in place on your tree. Remember also that your tree will respond differently to pruning depending on the time of year. Oftentimes the best time to prune is in the early spring, but take care not to cut off any flower buds by accident.
If you do notice that you have tree suckers growing, you can carefully remove them. You will probably have to remove some of the soil from around the base of the tree to find the tree sucker’s source. You will want to make sure you remove as much of the tree sucker as possible to discourage them from resprouting.
When removing watersprouts, you will want to take similar precautions. Cut them off as close to the tree as you can, trying not to leave any stubs behind if you can avoid it. Tree suckers can also be controlled chemically; once you remove the sucker you can treat the affected area with a root killer that contains glyphosate. Be careful when utilizing this method, however, as you can harm the tree itself if you apply too much root killer.
Inspect your tree regularly throughout the year and remove tree suckers and watersprouts as you find them to ensure optimal health for your tree for years to come.