What are Girdling Roots and How Do They Affect Your Trees?

26 Apr '21

Tree girdling.

A tree’s root system carries water and nutrients to the trunk, branches, and leaves. When a tree struggles, people tend to look only at the parts visible above the ground. This makes it easy to miss problems that begin in the root system.

Girdling roots grow in a circular pattern around the trunk. Some develop just above the soil but they also can be hidden beneath the surface. If you picture a belt being pulled tight around your waist, then you have a good idea of what girdling roots do to a tree. Preventing and treating girdling roots stops trees from being choked out.

How Girdling Roots Affect Trees

Are Certain Trees More Likely to Develop Girdling Roots?

One of the biggest causes of girdling roots is poor nursery and transplanting practices. In nurseries, plants can be kept in containers for too long. With nowhere to go, roots will begin to circle the sides of the container. 

A similar situation can happen if a tree is transplanted into a hole that is too small. Twisting the roots to make them fit into the hole can encourage them to maintain this growth pattern. If a planting hole has compacted soil, then the roots may be unable to stretch outwards. Curling around in a circle may be the only way that they can grow.

How Does This Root Problem Affect the Tree?

Trees struggle to thrive once girdling roots choke off their supply of nutrients and water. A tree with these types of roots may have dying branches and leaves despite receiving good care. Eventually, a tree can die off within approximately five to 15 years from this condition. Prompt treatment can restore tree health and bring it back to life.

How Do You Know If a Tree Has Girdling Roots?

A tree with girdling roots will show signs of general stress. You might notice that the tree’s leaves change colors abnormally early in the fall. An early leaf drop is another sign that the tree isn’t getting enough water and nutrients. Thinning of the tree’s upper crown could further indicate that the root system is struggling to keep it nourished.

A tree’s trunk can show one of the most telltale signs of a girdling root. Trees with normal growth have a flare at the base of the trunk. One with a girdling root will appear straighter or narrower on one side or all around. Occasionally, you’ll see roots circling the trunk above the ground. This is more common in areas with a large amount of soil erosion.

What Are the Best Treatment Options to Save the Tree?

Tree care.

Proper tree care includes treating girdling roots during the planting process. Make sure to dig a wide enough hole with roughened sides that encourage the roots to spread out. If roots are circling the root ball, then loosening these up stops them from maintaining that growth pattern. 

Once girdling roots are established, great care must be taken to remove them. These roots are often still supplying the tree with nutrient-filled water. Small roots may be able to be removed right away. Larger ones typically must be removed in stages. Working with an arborist prevents you from accidentally causing more damage to the tree by removing vital roots too soon.


Identifying girdling roots early gives your tree the best chance of a successful recovery. As you inspect a tree, keep in mind that crown problems can be caused by other issues such as inefficient irrigation. Whether you can see a girdling root or are curious to find out why your tree is struggling, a professional inspection can help you get to the root of the problem.

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