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Dysfunctional Root Systems and Brief Landscape Lives: Stem Girdling Roots and the Browning of our Landscapes. 2010 Woody Plant Conference – Scott Arboretum Gary Johnson The University of Minnesota Department of Forest Resources.

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Dysfunctional Root Systems and Brief Landscape Lives: Stem Girdling Roots and the Browning of our Landscapes

2010 Woody Plant Conference – Scott Arboretum

Gary Johnson

The University of Minnesota

Department of Forest Resources


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University of Minnesota Urban Forestry and Horticulture Institute (www.trees.umn.edu)

  • Gary Johnson, Professor and corresponding presenter. johns054@umn.edu, 612-625-3765.

    • Chad Giblin, Research Scientist

    • Jeff Gillman, Associate Professor

    • Dave Hanson, Research Specialist

    • Rebecca Koetter, Research Fellow

    • Sean Peterson, Forestry Technician

    • Andrea Dierich, Graduate Research Assistant

    • Davin Shokes, Research Assistant

    • Emily Hanson, Research Assistant



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Some Average Life Spans Institute

  • Bur Oak 250+ Years*

  • Silver Maple 125+ Years*

  • Boxelder 100+ Years*

  • Jack Pine 80+ Years*

  • Paper Birch 65+ Years*

  • Ford F150 Truck 20+ Years**

  • Urban Core Tree 7-10 Years***

*Silvics of North America. **I Hope. ***Moll, 1989


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State of the Urban Forest – 1989 InstituteG. Moll, American Forests

  • Average Tree Lifespans*

    • “Downtown” Urban Trees: 7-10 years.

    • Suburban Landscape Trees: 30-40 years.

    • Rural Landscape Trees: 60-70 years.

    • Native Undisturbed Sites: 150 years.

*Based on J. Kielbaso’s research






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Tree Health Decline: Predisposing, Inciting and Contributing Factors

  • Predisposing: Chronic effects on health.

  • Inciting: Short-lived, random events.

  • Contributing: Opportunistic factors.


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Common Predisposing Factors Factors

  • Long-Term Drought

  • Cold Hardiness Zones

  • Confined Root Spaces

  • Poorly-Drained Soil


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Common Inciting Events Factors

  • Seasonal Floods

  • Non-Target Spray Drift

  • Weed Trimmer/Lawn Mower Damage

  • Wind Storms


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Common Contributing Agents Factors

  • Armillaria Root Rot

  • Two-Lined Chestnut Borer

  • Bronze-Birch Borer

  • Target Cankers



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Normal Functional Root Systems Factors

Soil Line

Branch Root

Fine Root


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Normal Functional Root Systems Factors

6 year sugar maple root system from seed


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Normal Functional Root Systems Factors

Pat Bartlett – Bartlett Forestry

White spruce root system




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Dysfunctional Root Systems as Primary Predisposing Factors Systems

Photo by Dave Hanson

Photo by Eric Berg



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Dysfunctional Root Systems as Primary Predisposing Factors Systems

Approximately 20 year old root system of linden





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Problems With Dysfunctional Root Systems Systems

  • Reduced Root Spread

  • Limited Water and Nutrient Uptake

  • Reduced Photosynthetic Potential

  • Reduced Energy Reserves






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Problems With Dysfunctional Root Systems: Reduced Stability Photosynthesis

Photos by Kameron Kytonen















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Stem Girdling Roots and Storm Failures Photosynthesis

Photos by Eric Berg


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Storm Damage in Minnesota: Failures due to Stem Girdling Roots (1995-2005 n=1584)

  • 32% of all tree failures

  • 26% of all boulevard tree failures

  • 68% of Little-leaf Lindens in boulevards

  • > 90% of trees that had SGRs had stems buried 4” or more.



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Treatment Decisions Roots

Photo by Dave Hanson


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Treatment Decisions Roots

Photo by Dave Hanson


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Treatment Decisions Roots

Photo by Dave Hanson


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Treatment Decisions Roots

Photos by Mark Dungan


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Treatment Decisions Roots

Photos by Mark Dungan


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Treatments: 2 Years Later Roots

Soil Line



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Treatments: 8 Years Later Roots

8.5” SGR Removed





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Not All Treatments Were Successful Roots

6 Years Post Treatment


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Not All Treatments Were Successful Roots

4 Years Post Treatment


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Treatment Success often Species Dependent Roots

30 Ohio Buckeye. 2” Caliper at Planting. Depth Correction of as Much as 9 inches.

6 Years After Planting



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Prevention When Possible Roots

Trees Are Planted Deep to Prevent Leaning


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Does it Work? No!* Roots

2002 University of MN/Bailey Nursery Experiment

4 Tree Species, 460 Trees Total

4 Planting Depths: 0 – 2 – 4 – 6 Inches

Results? All Leaned at Same Rates


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How Often Does it Happen? Roots

  • 881 Trees Sampled out of 5500 Total

  • B&B and Containerized

  • 87%: Stem Buried 2+ Inches

  • 50%: Stem Buried 4+ Inches

Nursery Stock Survey 2001-2002*

*Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board; St. Paul Division of Forestry









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Correcting the Problem: 5 Roots

Avoiding Other Root Problems:

Stem Girdling Root


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Correcting the Problem: 5 Roots

Stem Girdling Root Removed



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Correcting the Problem: 5 Roots

Stem Girdling and Encircling Roots




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Correcting the Problem: 5 Roots

Removal Completed


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Prevention When Possible Roots

Photos by Stephen Schott


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Controlling Variables: Planting Depth Roots

Problem Corrected At Planting Time


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Prevention When Possible Roots

Does This Work? Probably Not.

Photos by Dave Hanson


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Prevention When Possible Roots

“Boxing” Pot-Bound Root Systems

Photo by Dave Hanson


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Prevention When Possible Roots

“Boxing” Pot-Bound Root Systems

Photo by Dave Hanson


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Prevention When Possible Roots

Alternatives to “Containers”: Root Bags

Photos by Gary Johnson


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Prevention When Possible Roots

Alternatives to “Containers”: Air Pruning Pots

Photos by Gary Johnson





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This Presentation Available by 10/26/10 Roots

  • www.trees.umn.edu

    • Gary’s Notes

      • Woody Plant Conference