How to Stop Tree Roots from Sprouting in the Lawn

We know trees – inside and out, from the top down. You name it! We can figure out what’s going on with a tree in your yard.

That’s why Joy from San Jose, California, reached out to us for help! She asked, “We have a spring-flowering pear tree in the center of our small front yard. It has sprouted shoots all over the grass. Is there any solution other than removing the tree? What can we do?”

Well, Joy, we teamed up with tree care industry experts to explain why tree roots sprout, how to remove them and if you can stop them from growing again.

Everything You Need to Know About Tree Shoots in Lawn

Why do shoots grow at the base of trees? Are some trees more prone to that?

Tchukki Andersen, a board-certified master arborist and staff arborist at the Tree Care Industry Association, details why this happens.

“Many tree species have latent buds beneath their bark. When a tree becomes stressed–say because the tree was damaged by a storm–those latent buds begin to grow. Essentially, the tree is trying to regenerate itself,” Andersen explains.

Ash trees start sprouting if it’s infested with emerald ash borer, while honey locusts are infamous for growing suckers all over the lawn. Andersen says, “Oaks, maples, cottonwoods, poplars–pretty much any hardwood tree–will begin to sprout if under stress.”

“To the tree, those shoots are a method to endure damage. To humans, they can be a nuisance,” Andersen adds.

There is good news, though. Trees that have sufficient sunlight, water and nutrition are less likely to sprout.

I have tree shoots all over the yard. How can I remove those tree seedlings or water sprouts?

Emily Renshaw, a certified arborist and the credential maintenance coordinator at the International Society of Arboriculture, answers this.

“It can be time-consuming, but I’ve found cutting the sprouts with a good pair of hand pruners looks and works the best. Be sure to cut those sprouts down as low as you can,” Renshaw advises. “Plus, hand pruning is relatively easy if the sprouts are still small.”

Prune and remove shoots as you see them grow to keep the situation manageable. If you leave them, those seedlings can grow into individual trees or try to take over the grass entirely.

How can I stop tree roots from sprouting – especially in the lawn?

Dan Krug, a certified arborist and an assistant district manager at The Care of Trees, a Davey company, office in Chicago, Illinois, handles this common question.

“Really, the best thing you can do is cut the suckers as Emily mentioned, and keep your tree healthy. Sucker growth is genetically what trees do when they become stressed, which makes it tough to effectively control,” Krug says.

Some people try sucker stopper products. “It’s really tricky. You need to use it very carefully. Follow the label precisely, just like if you were taking medication,” Krug explains. “If you use too much, the product becomes dangerous. You can burn the tree, see its health decline or could even kill it.”

Instead, a local arborist may safely be able to apply a growth inhibitor to stop the tree shoots.

If you DIY with a sucker stopper product, monitor your tree for the next few days. If you see distorted or brown leaves, you likely applied too much and should flush the system, like you would to remove winter salt.

“Constantly removing tree suckers can become overwhelming from a mental standpoint,” Krug notes. “But remember: there’s no such thing as a perfect tree. Always do your research before planting, and ask an arborist before you plant a new tree. We think about these types of issues, so you don’t have to.”

Evidence shows toxicity in birches

DAVID ALEXANDER TREES NEVER SUSPECTED: Tom Tothill with silver birches near his Christchurch home.

In 2007, Elspeth (Jimmo) Tothill died after suffering an allergic reaction linked to silver birch trees near her home. TOM TOTHILL writes that despite his wife’s death, officials have opposed his requests to remove the trees.

There is empirical evidence which points to toxicity from pollen and vapour given off by the common silver birch tree, Betula pendula. Pollen is the major form of toxicity given off in the spring when the tree is in flower. Following flowering the tree drops all the petals from the flowers causing a mess. Then they produce the catkins which fall from the tree, making another mess.

After the tree gets its spring leaves, herbivorous insects are attracted, which suck sap from the leaves and give off a scented vapour. If you happened to park your car under a tree, this vapour falls on the car, covering it with a sticky dew.

Supplied ALLERGIC: The late Elspeth Tothill.

This is called methyl salicylate. It is a highly toxic substance. It is a cause of irritation of the lungs manifesting itself in a chronic cough. This vapour surrounds the trees until the tree sheds its leaves. So it isn’t just pollen that effects people, it is this vapour that carries on making people feel ill. These organisms can enter the body and lie dormant in the body awaiting a moment when the person eats an apple or other fruit or nuts when it can suddenly trigger an anaphylactic event, causing almost instant death unless help is at hand.

Additionally, there have been reported cases where pregnant women have been exposed to Betula pendula and babies affected in utero.

The Betula pendula produces millions of seeds from each tree every year. Every seed will germinate and they are easy to grow. They grow very quickly so became a favourite many years ago, much to our ignorance, and now sorrow.

From January until May the tree sheds its seeds which get into everything. Every time there is a strong wind the tree sheds small branches everywhere. Methyl salicylate is oil of wintergreen used for cleaning grease and grime from engines etc. It is an ingredient for linament, so should never be ingested.

So both the pollen and the vapour from silver birch trees can affect people throughout the season who have a propensity to respiratory allergies and cause them much distress, as in the case of my wife whose death was attributed to hypersensitivity pneumonitis causing fibrosis of the lungs. All the early part of her life in the country, she suffered from hay fever caused by grass pollen. When eventually we moved to town she had very little hay fever and became much better.

Then, in 2003, we moved to our present home, where there were 12 silver birch trees within 50 metres of our house, and she started to develop respiratory problems.

We never suspected it was exposure to these trees causing the problem.

We now have 10 trees within 50 metres of the house. We negotiated with our neighbour to have two removed that were overhanging our property and house. My present wife has started to suffer sneezing eye irritation and runny nose. I have never had the slightest effect from antibiotics or from an allergy in my life, but am beginning to suffer coughing and shortness of breath, necessitating medical investigation, sore eyes, runny nose and lethargy.

City arborists are renowned to be implacable opponents of the removal of Betula pendula silver birch trees whether in Christchurch or elsewhere. They declare their fondness for silver birch trees. However, they are not permitted to approve subdivisions today that show planting applications which include pendula silver birch, knowing the toxic nature of the species.

I have made several submissions to the arborist asking if I could pay for the removal of the silver birch trees in a park near my property, and replace them with a suitable tree of the council’s choice at my expense. But they have refused the offer, stating that I would create a precedent.

What now that a precedent has been set (by Rugby St resident Hamish Riach’s successful application to have two trees replaced at his expense)? Do they want blood on their hands if we should die from some related condition due to our exposure to these toxic trees?

In the north of the northern hemisphere there are silver birch trees everywhere but they are not our common pendula variety.

In some places, pendula are not permitted within 2km of residential areas because of their known toxicity.

There are some 50 silver birch trees in Rugby St.

They are Betula pendula. There was one silver birch outside 65 Rugby St which was Betula utilis. Betula utilis is different from Betula pendula, as it has oval leaves which are plain rather than serrated and has a more erect habit.

It is a more beautiful tree than the pendula. It is not invasive on human health and does not appear to have allergenic effects on humans with allergies.

So, plant the Betula utilis and you will enjoy a lovely silver birch tree.

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Sucker N. Roux, Bioversity International A fruit-bearing parent plant (left) and a ratoon sucker (right).

A sucker is a lateral shoot that develops from the rhizome and emerges from the soil usually near the parent plant. It is a form of asexual, or vegetative, reproduction, that makes the banana plant perennial. Suckers emerge and ensure a more or less continuous supply of shoots, each capable of producing an inflorescence. They have been used as planting material since the early days of domestication by severing them from the mat and transplanting them to a new location.

Both wild species of bananas and cultivated bananas produce suckers. The clump of plants formed by the parent plant and its suckers is commonly called a mat. The botanical term for a mat is genet, and for a sucker is ramet.

Wild species may produce few or many suckers. Over time, some form dense and compact mats. This strategy, together with dormant seeds that germinate in disturbed soil, enables wild bananas to quickly colonise the edges of disturbed forest clearings. Norman Simmonds referred to wild bananas as “jungle weeds”.

Sucker development

Suckers arise from lateral buds on the rhizome. Each leaf that is attached to the rhizome has a lateral bud at its base. The formation of these lateral buds is suppressed from the time of floral initiation, when the aerial true stem begins to elongate.

The numbers of lateral buds (Line A), swollen buds (Line B) and suckers (Line C) produced by ‘Williams’ plants (Cavendish subgroup). The plantation was established in spring (October) in subtropical New South Wales, Australia (Lat 29°S). Data derived from Turner (1972).

Each lateral bud that forms (Line A in the graph) is capable of growing into a sucker, but not all do so. Many of the lateral buds swell (Line B), but only some of these develop into suckers. They grow laterally for a distance and form a sucker that grows towards the soil surface (Line C). From 6% to 40% of lateral buds produce suckers, depending on the cultivar, seasonal conditions and the presence and stage of development of the parent plant.

For a lateral bud to develop into a sucker a switch is necessary to begin growth and a supply of carbohydrates is needed to keep things going. A flush of gibberellin is thought to act as the switch. The bud also needs to be receptive to the flush of gibberellin. According to this hypothesis, a bud begins to grow when the gibberellin flush coincides with bud receptivity. Since the bud is a living organ, it needs an adequate supply of carbohydrates to support its growth into a sucker. The emergence of many suckers above the ground, such as happens in Plantains grown at high altitude (2200 m) means carbohydrate is available to support their growth. Far fewer suckers emerge in plantains grown at the same latitude but lower altitude (1100 m), implying that in these plants carbohydrate is either not available or not allocated to support sucker growth.

Types of suckers

The sucker appears above the soil and its state is characterised in part by its appearance. Initially, suckers have only leaf sheaths without a midrib or lamina. In horticultural terminology they are called peeper suckers. Some remain at this stage without further growth. Others continue to grow and produce leaves with a midrib and a very narrow lamina. They are then called sword suckers. Sword suckers gradually produce leaves whose laminae are broad and of the adult form (see photo at the top of the page). The sucker selected to replace the parent plant is called the follower or ratoon. Sometimes, ratoon suckers that have not fruited are referred to as maiden suckers, although this term is poorly defined, and it can be difficult to determine whether a sucker at this stage is vegetative or contains an unemerged bunch.

Sword sucker (left) and water sucker (right) (photo by C. Staver, Bioversity)

Lateral buds may survive on sections of the rhizome after the aerial stems of earlier generations have decayed. Suckers that arise from these lateral buds usually have a small rhizome and broad leaves. They are called water suckers and their connection to the rhizome is often structurally weak. For this reason, water suckers are not suitable for selection as a ratoon to continue the life of the mat into the next generation. However, water suckers can still be a source of planting material to establish a new plantation. Oppenheimer and Gottreich compared sword and water suckers, excised from the parent plant and of equivalent height at planting . For plants that flowered at the same time, bunches from sword suckers and water suckers were of a similar size.

Local names

There are various local names for suckers, including keiki (in Hawaii) and pup (mostly used in the American garden nursery industry).

Sucker management

An excess of suckers can lead to reduced bunch weight, especially in ratoon crops. The number of suckers that are allowed to develop and mature is managed by pruning (desuckering).

Considerations such as the evenness of the crop and the position of the sucker in relation to the direction of the row and in relation to the bunch on the parent plant influence the selection of the follower in commercial plantations of Cavendish cultivars. Suckers can also be managed to time harvesting to meet market demands.

Taxonomic descriptors

List of the sucker-related descriptors used to characterize banana plants.

6.2.9 Number of suckers
(If any desuckering has been done, do not record anything. If no desuckering has been done, count only the suckers that are taller than 30 cm.)

6.2.10 Sucker development
(Tallest sucker in relation to the mother plant. Recorded at harvest.)
1. Taller than the mother plant
2. More than 3/4 the height of the mother plant
3. 1/4 to 3/4 the height of the mother plant
4. Inhibited

6.2.10.b Suckers with tubular leaves
(The descriptor refers to the tubular leaves of certain East African Highland bananas. It does not refer to the cigar leaf.)
1. Suckers with tubular leaves
2. Suckers without tubular leaves

6.2.11 Position of suckers
1. Far (more than 50 cm away from the mother plant)
2. Close to the mother plant (grows vertically)
3. Close to the mother plant (grows at an angle)

6.3.23 Blotches on leaves of water suckers
(Leave blank if there is no water sucker. See Types of suckers above for the description of a water sucker)
1. Without blotches
2. Little or narrow blotches
3. Large purple blotches

1. Simmonds, N.W. 1962. The evolution of the bananas. Tropical Science Series. Longmans, London, UK. 170p. 2. Barker, W.G. and Steward, F.C. 1962. Growth and Development of the Banana Plant I. The Growing Regions of the Vegetative Shoot. Annals of Botany 26(3):389-411. 3. Fisher J.B. 1978. Leaf opposed buds in Musa: their development and a comparison with allied monocotyledons. American Journal of Botany 65:784-791. 4. Turner, D.W. 1972. Banana plant growth. 1: Gross morphology. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture and Animal Husbandry 12:209-215. 5. Turner, D.W., Fortescue, J.A., Ocimati, W. and Blomme, G. 2016. Plantain cultivars (Musa spp. AAB) grown at different altitudes demonstrate cool temperature and photoperiod responses relevant to genetic improvement. Field Crops Research 194:103-111. 6. Swennen, R., Wilson, G.F., De Langhe, E. 1984. Preliminary investigation of the effects of gibberellic acid (GA3) on sucker development in plantain (Musa cv AAB) under field conditions. Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) 61, 253-256. 7. Sikyolo I, Sivirihauma C, Ndungo V, De Langhe E, Ocimati W, Blomme G (2013) Growth and yield of plantain cultivars at four sites of differing altitude in North Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In: Blomme G, van Asten P, Vanlauwe B (Eds.) Banana Systems in the Humid Highlands of Sub-Saharan Africa, CAB International, Wallingford, pp 48-57. 8. Simmonds, N.W. 1966. Bananas. 2nd Edn. Tropical Agriculture Series. Longmans, Harlow, UK. 512p. 9. Oppenheimer, C. and Gottreich, M. 1954. Studies on growth and development of the dwarf banana in the coastal plain of Israel: III. Comparative value, as planting material, of suckers from young and old rhizomes. Ktavim 5(1):53-55. 10. Robinson J.C., Nel D.J. 1990. Competitive inhibition of yield potential in a ‘Williams’ banana plantation due to excessive sucker growth. Scientia Horticulturae 43:225-236. 11. Robinson J.C. and Galan-Sauco V. 2010. Bananas and Plantains. 2nd Ed. CABI, Wallingford, U.K. 12. Sucker selection in Tropical banana information kit. 1998. Queensland Government. 13.Nurse suckering, page 16 in Tropical banana information kit. 1998. Queensland Government. 14. IPGRI, INIBAP, CIRAD. 1996. Descriptors for Banana (Musa spp.). IPGRI, Rome, Italy; INIBAP, Montpellier, France; CIRAD, France. 55 pp.

Also on this website

TC, or not TC. Is that the question? Blog comparing the performance of tissue-culture banana plantlets and suckers as planting material.

Further reading

Propagation protocols and standards for bananas, chapter in FAO plant production and protection paper 195. Also available in French and Spanish.

Tree Sucker Removal And Tree Sucker Control

You may have noticed that an odd branch has started growing from the base or the roots of your tree. It may look much like the rest of the plant, but soon it becomes apparent that this strange branch is nothing at all like the tree you planted. The leaves may look different, it may produce inferior fruit or it may be a different kind of tree all together. What is going on? Your tree has developed a sucker.

What is a Plant Sucker?

You are probably thinking, “What is a plant sucker?” Essentially, a plant sucker is an effort by the tree to grow more branches, especially if the tree is under stress, but you have taken perfect care of your plant and it wasn’t under any stress. Besides, that does not explain why your tree has suddenly switched varieties.

Chances are, your tree is actually two trees spliced or grafted together. With many ornamental or fruiting trees, the desirable tree, for instance a key lime, is grafted onto the rootstock of an inferior but hardier related variety. The top of the tree is perfectly happy, but the lower half of the tree is under a certain amount of stress and biologically will try to reproduce itself. It does this by growing suckers from the root or lower stem. Tree suckers can also grow on non-grafted trees, but are most common on grafted ones. This explains what is a plant sucker.

Tree Sucker Control

It is better to try to prevent a tree sucker rather than having to deal with tree sucker removal. Here are some tips to help with tree sucker control:

  • Keep plants in good health. Many times, the rootstock on a tree will start to grow plant suckers when the additional stresses, like drought, overwatering, disease or pests, threaten the tree.
  • Don’t over prune. Over pruning can stimulate the growth of tree suckers. To prevent a tree sucker, try not to cut into growth that is more than a few years old, if possible.
  • Prune regularly. While over pruning can cause plant suckers, regular healthy pruning can help with tree sucker control.

Tree sucker – Remove or Let Grow?

While you might be tempted to leave a tree sucker, remove them as quickly as possible. A tree sucker will sap the energy away from the healthier and more desirable branches on top. Chances are, you will not be pleased by the plant produced by the tree sucker. Remove them to improve the health of the plant overall.

Tree Sucker Removal

Tree sucker removal is easy to do. Tree sucker removal is done in the same way pruning is performed. Using a sharp, clean pair of pruning shears, cleanly cut the plant sucker as close to the tree as possible, but leave the collar (where the tree sucker meets the tree) to help speed the wound recovery. Perform this tree sucker control as soon as you see any plant suckers appear so that you put less stress on your tree.

Asexual propagation by aboveground structures

Now let’s look at some other adaptations for asexual propagation.

Stolons, runners. Stolons, also called runners, are horizontal creeping aboveground stems. These stems travel along the soil surface and can sprout new, genetically identical, plants at nodes along their length. Strawberry growers are familiar with runners—strawberries readily produce runners and sprout new plants, and part of managing the crop is choosing which runners to keep and which to prune away. And houseplant lovers will recognize the runners on spider plants and the “baby” plants that develop at nodes.

Stolons are an efficient way for plants to spread. Many ground covers and grasses spread by stolons—a plus if you are trying to fill in a bare patch. Unfortunately, many noxious weeds also spread by stolons, making them difficult to eradicate.

Stolon on strawberrry plant

Suckers. Another way plants propagate asexually is by suckering. A sucker is a shoot that arises from an adventitious bud on an underground root. (The word sucker is often also used to refer to shoots arising from stem tissue at the base of a plant.) Blackberries and raspberries are famous for their vigorous suckering—in fact, left unpruned, these prickly brambles will spread, claiming a larger and larger area as their own.

Because they have both shoots and roots, suckers can be used to propagate plants. If you want more lilac plants, for example, look for suckers that are at least two years old. Using a shovel, sever the root connecting the sucker to the main plant. Wait several months (or until the following year) for the shoot to develop more feeder roots before transplanting.

Sucker on lilac bush

Suckers also often arise from rootstock tissue on fruit trees and roses. (We’ll talk about rootstocks in a minute.) Conscientious orchardists and rose growers know to prune off any suckers arising from the rootstocks, to keep the suckers from competing with the main plant.

Now let’s look at some horticultural methods for asexual propagation.

Suckers & Water Sprouts on Trees

And he was! The Ohio State University Professor Emertis agreed with Lee about water sprouts in trees: “Absolutely pull them off if you can reach them; if you prune them, they’re like the hydra—they’ll re-grow 3 or 4 more in their place. And the sooner and younger you pull them off the less likely the chance they’ll re-grow.”

And those underground suckers our listeners are bedeviled by?

Dr. Ferree’s specialty is apple trees, which may be why Lee us pointed to him. Turns out that some apple orchards he studied were thrilled to get their trees down to an average of 18 suckers each a year; because they had started out with 300 per tree! Apples must do this a lot, huh? “Oh yes,” he says, “and the rootstock is often key. As you know, the desired apple variety is always grafted onto a rootstock of another variety, and certain rootstocks, like “Malling 7” are notorious for suckering, while others, like “Malling 26” almost never sends up suckers.

“We see the problem worst in plants that are rooted too shallowly. Being that close to the surface seems to encourage this kind of activity. So if you have lots of suckers, add a layer of topsoil or compost over the area and it may make things better. Also, if you can excavate an area that has a lot of suckers without harming the tree, you may see that a single root is sprouting almost all of them. Prune that root off and the suckers may go with it.”

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Talkin’ Fruit Trees: Is Planting a Sucker a Good Idea?

A few months ago I talked about planting seeds for fruit trees. Today on social media I saw a recommendation for something you hear about much less frequently. This involves removing the suckers that grow around a fruit tree and transplanting them with a bit of root still attached. Now I won’t lie, this is a perfectly legitimate way to get a tree. That is, if you are not too interested in fruit.

Fruit Trees Grown from Suckers Won’t Produce the Fruit You Were Expecting

Now I am sure that someone is going to chastise me for being against experimentation, but the bigger reality is that I am against useless experimentation. A quick perusal of reliable information gathered from state Cooperative Extension websites, plant providers, and reputable books will clearly show what the results of the experiment will be: genetic clones of the root the plant came from. Please note that again, the resulting plant will be a clone of the root of the mother plant. This can be very successful if you are trying to grow a wood plant that rarely or never is grafted to a rootstock, particularly shrubs like currants, raspberries, or goji berries. Tree fruits on the other hand are almost always grafted onto roots that are chosen for their qualities as a root rather than their fruit. A few have been noted as having good fruit, but most have already been rejected as a producing crop because they aren’t good to eat.

Trust Proven Techniques, But Feel Free to Experiment

Now I suppose you can experiment with something where the results have long been established if you are trying to learn technique or a new line of inquiry, but if you are looking to have a productive foodscape, especially if you are on a city lot, it is better to go with something tried and true. In today’s homegrown food world there seems to be a bit of animosity to the proven techniques and plants. I think this is especially true of the tree crops that can successfully provide quality crops for decades.

Learn What Rootstocks & Varieties Do Best in Your Climate & Soil Type

If you are going to plant fruit trees that you expect to be reliable food sources you should choose trees that produce fruits you already know you enjoy or that are noted as having similar flavor. Choose trees that are also the right size for the area that you are planting them and are grafted to rootstocks that are known for their wide adaptability or are specifically adapted to your soils and climate. The climate compatibility should also be looked at for the fruit variety as well, as not all varieties do well in all areas. This is especially true for a country with as many climates and shear landmass as the United States.

What it comes down to is that if you want quality fruit on a budget you need to do your research and decide what will work best for you then look around and find the best price and quality for the options you are looking at. And remember, getting a cheap price on something often means you will get cheap, inferior quality.


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