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So Long, Suckers!

A few years ago my friends started up a blog over at Far Out Flora, and asked me to write a guest post. I was totally honored, and for some reason totally scared to write for a blog. I put together an idea of what I wanted to write about, but just never got it together to do the actual post. The thought of the post stayed with me, and eventually their inspiration led me to start my own blog here. Though I never did write that guest post for them, I figured I might as well finally write what I was planning to oh-so long ago.

“So Long, Suckers” is not a post about Matti and Megan moving to Wisconsin. 🙂 (Congrats on your baby girl, you two!) Suckers are actually those little shoots that come off a plant’s roots or right at the base of the trunk of a tree. There are other types of growth that also get called suckers, such as water sprouts, but the general connotation is that the sucker is growth that inhibits what you are wanting to grow. You generally encounter them on trees, but you’ll also be aware of them on roses and on many other types of plants. Seems the rose family, Rosaceae, which also includes apples and pears and plums, is a super-prime candidate for suckers. They are very much a natural part of plant growth, so what’s so bad about them?

Suckers! Many years of letting them get too large, and pruning them off, have left this tree base all gnarled and burled.

When it comes down to it, nothing really. In ornamental gardening, though, they can be a nuisance. We do a lot to plants in the nursery industry to make them what we want, and they require maintenance to remain what we intended. Suckers can slow plant growth, or even be a different plant altogether!

Suckers!

Let’s talk basal suckers (the ones at the base of a tree.) True suckers, if you will. I see it a lot with street trees, especially with SF’s proliferation of Ginkgo and flowering cherry and plum trees. Many trees naturally form something of a thicket – many trunks will sprout from a single base, like in plum trees, and if left untended you’ll eventually have a dozen or more trees from one spot. None will develop thicker than a few inches of trunk, and all will stay about 10-12 feet high.

Magnolia being allowed to sucker…

What does suckering do? Well, let’s think about it: each plant has a network of roots to support and feed it. If you have a tree, its roots are doing just that. Add a sucker or a dozen suckers, and that same root system is now having to support a dozen trees. Naturally, they will be limited in size. This works just fine in nature – it’s how the plants were designed. But here we are with a tiny little SF back yard, and we don’t want a thicket of a dozen plum trees taking up the whole yard. Or we have a street tree in a 2×2 square cutout of sidewalk and need it to be a clean look. It’s messy and offers a haven for rats and other critters you may not want out there. We just want one plum tree. By removing the suckers, all that energy that would have come off the roots to support the thicket now gets redirected into the remaining solitary tree. The tree gets thicker and taller than if left to its own devices, because there is only one plant to support. Keeping the suckers cleared allows the tree to spread out a canopy of shade instead of being a cluster of vertical growth.

Perfect example! The two Melaleuca trees here are the same species, planted the same day. Leftie is suckering and not being controlled. Rightie has been de-suckered. See the difference!

Here’s a closeup of the suckering Melaleuca tree. Testament to surviving brutal treatment, though!

There’s another reason to snip off those suckers: It could well be a plant you don’t want! Grafting is phenomenally common in nursery stock, in particular with fruit trees and Japanese maples. Grafting is the practice of taking a cutting from one plant (called the scion) and splicing it onto a different species of plant (the rootstock –  the one that will provide the roots for the cutting). Fun things can be done with grafting, including creating a small apple tree with six branches each bearing a different kind of apple! Many ornamental trees (like the ornamental flowering plum and cherry trees that provide no fruit) can only be multiplied by grafting, because no fruit means no seeds. Some seed-producing plants get grafted because they were a cross between two other plants, and the seeds will grow into one of those grandparent plants instead of being another of the same plant you collected seed from. One of the more common reasons for grafting is to control size and provide good roots. By grafting a cutting of a large species of lemon onto the roots of a small species of orange tree, for example, you thus end up with a root system that will limit how big the lemon can get, resulting in a dwarf tree for a small yard or patio.

Suckers coming off the rootstock of a street tree. You can clearly see the graft union on this critter.

That’s where killing off those suckers is most important. You bought a dwarf lemon tree, and I assume you want a dwarf lemon tree out of it. If a sprout is coming off the base of the trunk, it’s coming from below that graft union. That sucker is going to end up being an orange tree. The sucker is coming off it’s own root species, so the roots will favor it over your scion lemon. If you let the sucker grow, it will outpace your lemon. Your lemon will fail eventually. And someplace like here in SF, that would mean a useless fruit tree, since we don’t have the heat to make oranges grow anyway. I did this with a rose sucker once. It was supposed to be a ‘Barbra Streisand’ with lovely lavender petals. This strong new shoot came up so I ignorantly cut off the seemingly weak trunk, excited that she was growing stronger now. It was, of course, some species whitish rose, and not my Babs.

Base of a red-leaf plum, with green-leaf suckers forcing out of the rootstock.

Or it could be color. Those beautiful red-leaved flowering plum trees around town (Prunus cerasiferaAtropurpurea‘) are scions grafted onto some regular ol’ plum tree. Let the suckers go, and you’ll find lots of green plum leaves coming in, and untended they will smother out your purple leaves! Naturally, the roots want to support what they were designed for. It’s our own intervention that is making them support a foster tree, and it’s our responsibility to maintain the foster or they will overpower it.

I mentioned water sprouts earlier. Those are the vertical shoots you get on some trees, like the red-leaf plums. In small back yards and with street trees, you really want to treat those like suckers, too. All that vertical growth will only add significant weight as they thicken and multiply. The tree will get weaker and eventually come crashing down. You want to keep those cleared so you can focus on the actual branches and structure of the tree.

Red-leaf plum, full of water sprouts.

A couple hours of pole-pruner-wrangling cleaned this girl up nicely!

So let’s keep those trees sucka free!

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15 responses to “So Long, Suckers!

  1. In the Netherlands they use a lovely trick dealing with suckers on Tilia (linden/lime) trees: They prune the inevitable shoots into a square hedge around the base of the tree. This would not work on every situation, but it’s a neat way to think about managing suckers.

  2. So wonderful you are blogging. I feel connected to your finds around the neighborhood and your passion for plants. I love that you take these little moments and bring some light and humor to them. It puts a smile on my face. Matti

  3. No the nursery industry needs to stop selling stretched twiggy trees and start selling more fuller trees with lower growth instead of only growth at the top of the trees then no branches in the middle nor bottom of the trees, who all wants a tooth pick tree with high growth i sure don’t…

    suckers are better for me and i think they make the trees look better aswell because it fills in the empty spot of the trees plus anyone could root out a sucker like i do and have more of whatever they have, i have a pear tree that grows new suckers every year and i root those out with rooting gel i don’t spray my pear tree with no kind of poisons that kills the bees if the tree gets any kind of sickness it does ol well atleast i have some suckers right..

    i have a {purple leaf plum tree} and the seeds from the purple leaf plum tree sprouted out but the leaves aren’t purple their green i wonder why they are green and not purple because they should be purple like the parent tree leaves are i just figured that the purple leaf plum tree is a mixed tree or its a grafted one and thats why mine have green leaves what do you think about this.

    • I’m not fond of many of the grafted trees, honestly. Some are really creepy to me, like flowering cherry trees. Just find them phenomenally hideous. I do have a grafted Japanese maple I think is quite pretty, though. But it’s a cascading variety, and the trunk is completely hidden under the branches. It’s a “Cousin It” looking tree. 🙂

      The purple leaf plum is a grafted tree, and perfectly illustrates the point about the need to prune suckers to keep the intended tree. Purple leaf plums do not grow from seeds. To get a purple leafed one, you need to take cuttings from a purple, and graft onto the roots of another plum. And keep suckers off, because they will be green leafed and will take over the purple. The purple’s seeds are genetically weak, and will revert to green leaves, as you’ve found.

      In the context of my post, getting rid of suckers is mostly important in terms of maintaining street trees (which must be a single trunk) or small garden trees (like we have here in San Francisco). Most people want such trees to be “standards” (the lollipop cut). I love a good low-branching tree, if it’s the right space for it. I like that you make use of the suckers from your pears! Makin’ new trees is a good thing.

  4. If theirs a bunch of suckers at the bottom of an red maple tree you could cut down the larger part of the tree and let the suckers grow i’ve seen them like this along the streets too grow well and fast

    • But then you’d be cutting down the tree you paid for and letting the suckers take over. Not that there’s anything really wrong with that, but why waste the money to buy a specimen tree if you’re just going to kill it? The suckers will be a perfectly valid tree, but you could have bought the cheap species tree if that’s what you wanted. If you buy something grafted, it’s because you want whatever that specimen grafting is. Like a dwarf Meyer lemon. Grafted onto the roots of an orange tree. If you wanted the orange tree, don’t buy an expensive grafted lemon tree and cut it off the roots.

      I’ve seen suckered trees alongside streets, too. In SF, it’s against code, though. Here, you have to maintain a single trunk. Or, at least, an “orderly” look. Multiple trunks tend to house rodents around here, unfortunately!

  5. THANK YOU!!! I thought my ornamental plum was just stressed. There are several suckers at base of trunk. Should I just cut them? How close to trunk is safe?

  6. Surely somewhere there must be someone else like myself.
    I am feeling totally convinced that all living things have some sort of reasoning ability..it is not just chance that certain growing things produce poisonous substances to prevent decimation by insects or viruses.

    So, to my way of thinking, suckers and watersprouts…[we live in a 120 year-old wooden house]…have something good about them.
    We have saved our very old trees and ignore advice about needed pruning. We love their sixty-feet and higher – lofty beauty. They are taller than the attic of our three-story house with nine and a half foot ceilings.

    This area used to be, eons ago, the Great Black Swamp in NM Ohio, till the moraine at Fort Wayne, Indiana wore away.
    The land dried out, and then farmers destroyed the fast-growing cottonwoods to create farmland from the rich alluvial soil left after the glaciation.
    We have one horse chestnut tree in our front yard and two big and wonderful old, old maple trees on our side lot.

    Now and then a perfectly healthy young tree gets completely encircled from some disease or insect (?) and once girdled, the poor tree, dies suddenly.

    The big trees, including two sixty and seventy feet-high pines with really shallow roots, in this soil that is solid clay, about three feet down from the surface, all have survived.

    We spray nothing. We take our chances. Somebody has to allow the toads and frogs and other living creatures like ants and spiders…crickets, yes even other pests….to have a place to live.

    Americans – just look at all of the helpless animals killed on our roads.

    Somewhere some people like us, ought to pull any unwanted weeds, not spray them. Or let them grow. Why not.

    Thank you for the excellent information. I know what I am going to do about all of the watersprouts and suckers.
    I will shape the suckers and keep them relatively low. And figure out something about the watersprouts.
    Actually, as for watersprouts, I prefer a fleshed-out tree like our ornamental pear tree that was never properly pruned as a baby tree before we moved here…..so that one trunk crashed to the ground while we were gone that day two years ago.
    When we got home our front stairs were completely embraced with the half of the tree a second trunk that never should have been allowed to grow, I guess…
    The next morning and afternoon, we spent an entire day cutting up the fallen side so to be able to use front steps to our porch and to enter the front door.
    I found online some wonderful plastic solution and did several coats over several days of letting each coat dry…. that sealed the two-foot long byten inches-wide wound…and it survived. I watched the remains grow all sorts of “watersprouts” and they have fleshed out the gangly tree.
    It really has benefited from all of those vertical growing branches.

    I guess we are luckier than almost anyone since no one tells us we must look like every other house in the neighborhood. It is wonderful not to be threatened by the needs of conformity! Ah, the luxury of living in a small town of just ordinary people like ourselves. Occasionally the “authorities” have to get after someone to mow his inherited, unoccupied house’s lawn or bill them for it and hire it done. But this is America at its best. People mind their own business and wave when they see someone they know.

    About the downed half of this really big tree with the double trunk…what some people call a “trash tree” :

    A woman’s grown grandsons carted away all of the wood for her wood-burning garage stove; another neighbor loaded and took out-of-town to a special dump all of the branches and leaves….load after load, to help us.

    My husband and myself methodically cut the branches and made most of the the large branches into logs. and the grandsons hefted the pieces they cut off the trunk, into their truck, alongside the rest of the wood. Then we swept and cleaned up what was left..
    We were 76 and 77 at the time and I did a lot of reminding to my husband about how to think carefully how to cut into a branch with an undercut first and then to cut the top incision, and so on, and that he was to remember he was standing on ladder. I hand-sawed more branches than I care to recall.

    My point is that we wasted nothing. The branches that went to a special out-of-town dump was only for such as that and grass clippings.

    I am writing this because we have to start paying attention to our land, our water, our creatures and our values.
    nancy morse

    • Nicely said! I totally agree. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the like-minded, and have nothing but 100% non-chemical garden clients. Favoring leaf much over bagged mulch, etc. Good stuff.

      My friend Lisa Benjamin has a great concept program about weeds, where she travels the world and leaves hang tags on weeds explaining what they are, what critters depend on it, and how it’s useful to us. Lisabenjamin.com is her central hub. One of the links on there is this project.

  7. I have read that my purple plum tree is “stressed” and that is why it produces the suckers. I cut them back every spring, but they seem to multiply by the next spring. Is there anything that I can put around the base of my tree, which is growing beautifully by the way, that can prevent the suckers from coming back?

    • Hi Lindie

      Ya know, I’ve not heard that before but it could be true. If that is the case, then presumably extra watering would help reduce the stress and, thus, the suckers. I’m not aware of anything that’ll keep the suckers at bay, I’m sorry to say.

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