Where are your tree’s roots? Are they deep-rooted or shallow-rooted? What difference does it make?
We used to think that all trees had huge taproots that went deep into the soil. Then, we thought some trees had evolved shallow root systems that spread out through the upper layers of soil. We were wrong. There are no “deep-rooted” or “shallow-rooted” trees, per se.
Tree roots are not genetically programmed to move in a specific direction. Instead, they move through the soil the way ants scout for food - first one way, then the other. Tree roots are opportunistic, going wherever the food, water, beneficial microorganisms, warmth, and oxygen are available.
How much is root?
A single tree can have hundreds of miles of roots, and hundreds of thousands of root tips. Approximately 20% of a tree’s weight is found in the root system. That means an 80’ hardwood tree, with a 24 inch diameter, which weighs approximately 10 tons, can have 4,000 lbs. of roots. [Your average new car weighs 2,871 lbs.] That’s a lot of roots.
Function of tree roots
Tree roots serve several functions. They anchor the tree in place. Tree roots absorb and store water, oxygen, and nutrients from the soil, compete with neighboring plants, and maintain incredible relationships with beneficial fungi and bacteria found in the soil. You may not think of tree roots when it comes to photosynthesis, but you should. According to Thomas O. Perry, in a report published by the Harvard Arboretum, tree roots produce produce nitrogenous compounds that are essential to photosynthesis. Knowing what your trees’ roots are doing, and what they need, can help you keep your trees healthy and productive. But it all starts with the first root.
The first root
The first root that emerges from a tree seed, be it an acorn, peach pit, or pine nut, is called the radicle. The radicle nearly always grows straight down, pulled by gravity. Once the radicle is established in a place where it can absorb water, oxygen, and nutrients, further root development continues.
Taproots and oxygen
In some cases, such as walnuts, pines, and oaks, the taproot persists, growing down 3 to 6 feet. This taproot can grow extremely deep, under ideal conditions, but that's rare. Other trees develop a system of fibrous roots, and the taproot is not maintained. Tree roots move through the macropores and micropores found in the soil. If the soil is too hard or compacted, roots cannot move through it. Tree root growth generally stops when insufficient oxygen levels are encountered. This can be caused by compaction, the presence of hardpan, or by flooding. Cherry trees are particularly sensitive to insufficient oxygen in the soil, which is why they tend to be difficult to grow in compaction-prone clay. [Their roots contain chemicals that turn into cyanide gas when oxygen levels are too low! (Rowe and Catlin, 1971)]
The place where major roots emerge from the subterranean trunk is called the root collar. Most trees put out 4 to 11 major roots that grow horizontally from the root collar. These roots are generally found in the top 12 inches of soil, though they can range 3 to 7 feet deep, depending on age, species, and local conditions. These roots are can be 3 to 15 feet long, and up to 1 inch in diameter. Like trunks and branches, these woody, perennial roots develop growth rings, and they provide anchoring support from which all the transport roots emerge.
Transport roots normally fill a circular area that can be 4 to 7 times greater than the drip line. Transport roots do exactly what their name implies: they transport resources collected by the root hairs into the vascular bundles that feed the rest of the tree. To take good care of your trees, you really need to know where these roots might be.
GARDEN CHALLENGE: Where are your roots?
I challenge you to learn where your trees’ roots right be. You can do this outside, with a tape measure and a long rope, or you can do it on your computer, or with paper and pencil. However you do it, it will probably surprise you just how far these roots go. Regardless of the method you use, these steps will help you learn where your trees’ root might be:
Note how the root systems of all your trees (and large shrubs and everything else) overlap in significant ways. Also note where those root systems might end up covered by your house, the street, or some other dead zone. [Printouts of current satellite views of your property are very handy for activities like this one.]
But there is a lot more to tree roots than perennial and transport roots. There are some roots you’ve never seen, and some you’ve probably never even heard of!
In particularly dry, sandy soil, trees will put out striker roots. Striker roots grow straight down, from the perennial roots, until they encounter a barrier or insufficient oxygen. These striker roots, as well as taproots, then start branching out horizontally, creating an entirely new layer of root system.
Feeder roots are where all the action happens. These are the microscopic root hairs (which aren’t actually hairs at all) that interact with water, oxygen, and mineral molecules found in the soil, along with billions of soil microorganisms that make everything possible. These feeder roots grow upward into the top soil to collect (and disperse) nutrients, oxygen, and water.
Causes of tree root damage
You may be surprised to learn that fully 99% of a tree’s roots are found in the top 3 feet of soil, and that it is a lot easier than you might expect to damage those roots. Tree roots are frequently damaged by drought, flooding, extreme temperatures, the presence of rocks or hardpan, nematodes, springtails, and root-eating vermin, such as voles. Tree roots can also be damaged by human actions, even when our intentions are good. These actions include:
Signs of root damage
Tree roots can be seen as a reflection of the aboveground portion of the tree. Not necessarily in terms of size or shape, but in overall health. For example, if the leaves are repeatedly removed from a tree, some of the roots will die, as well. In the same way, if a portion of the root system is damaged or drowned, a corresponding dieback of the aboveground portion of the tree can be seen.
The vascular systems of some trees, such as oaks, are tied directly to branches on the same side of the tree. Damage to the roots will be reflected in poor health or death of branches on the same side of the tree. In other cases, portions of roots are tied to branches on the opposite side of the tree, while others have more of a spiral or zig-zag vascular system that serves the entire tree. These patterns can vary between species and individual trees, but arborists use this information to sort out problems related to irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides.
Helping tree roots
You can help your trees’ roots stay healthy by aerating the soil, avoiding compaction, irrigating properly, mulching, and top dressing with organic material. These actions will help the worms, microorganisms, and other processes “fluff” the soil, improving soil structure, and provide important nutrients.
Unlike the crown shyness seen above ground, where the leaves of individual trees avoid touching, the root systems of different trees, shrubs, and other plants can intertwine in complex networks that are made evermore astounding when you learn how they use soil microorganisms to share nutrients and to communicate. [We’ll talk more about that later.] In situations where several of the same species of tree are growing near each other, the roots of one tree will graft to the roots of another tree. [I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again - the more I learn, the weirder the world gets!]
I hope that you can now see your trees with new eyes, eyes that can better imagine what is happening underground and under your feet.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!