Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

Trees and Shrubs that Get Around

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A typical suckering shrub: multiple stems, each with its own roots.

Most trees produce only a single trunk over their entire life. The average shrub, too, produces all its branches from a single base. But there are exceptions to this rule, woody plants that send out suckers (basal shoots) from creeping roots, stolons, or rhizomes. Sometimes these sprout near the mother plant, but other times they can be a good distance away. And suckering trees and shrubs do tend to get out of hand over time. Sometimes these plants sucker only under specific conditions, such as when their roots are damaged by hoeing or when the mother plant is under stress. Others, on the other hand, sucker happily under just about any condition!

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The false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) is an example of a widely grown and attractive shrub… whose suckers do tend to get out of hand!

You can turn this disadvantage into an advantage in areas prone to erosion because suckering trees and shrubs create a complex mass of rhizomes, stolons and roots that holds the soil in place. Laidback gardeners can also benefit from their tendency to wander by letting them fill in empty spaces in the garden. A single shrub that covers a large area means a lot less planting… and a lot less expense! Also, most suckers are not just shoots, they are rooted plants: you can easily dig them up and replant them elsewhere, which gives you plenty of free green material for future plantatings! But no matter where you plant suckering plants, and even if you appreciate their ability to proliferate, you still need to know how to stop them. They won’t be able to escape, for example, if they are surrounded by a terrace or trapped between the wall of the house and a walkway. And cities often use them as low-cost fillers for traffic medians: no way they’ll find their way of that kind of barrier.

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A bucket or pot whose bottom has been removed will control almost any suckering shrub… but won’t be big enough for many trees.

You can also plant them inside a barrier, such as a big pot or plastic bucket whose bottom has been removed (necessary for proper drainage).

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Anti-rhizome barrier.

Or install an anti-rhizome barrier, also called a bamboo barrier, a sort of semi-rigid plastic film of about 2 feet (60 cm) in height that can be inserted into ground around the plantation. (This product is widely available in Europe and in parts of the United States, but I know only of one source in Canada: Canada’s Bamboo World).

List of Suckering Trees and Shrubs

Here are some temperate climate shrubs and trees that tend to sucker, at least under certain conditions.

  1. American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) Zone 3
  2. Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) Zone 2
  3. Blackberry (Rubus) Zone 5
  4. Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) zone 4b
  5. Bramble (Rubus) Zones 3 to 7
  6. Buffaloberry (Shepherdia) Zone 2
  7. Bush honeysuckle (Diervillea) Zones 3-5
  8. Chokeberry (Aronia) Zone 4
  9. Chokecherry (Prunus virginaniana) zone 2b
  10. Cliff Green (Paxistima canbyi) zone 4b
  11. Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) Zone 2
  12. Common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) Zone 3
  13. Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) zone 2b
  14. Devil’s walkingstick (Aralia spinosa) Zone 6
  15. European Aspen (Populus tremula) Zone 2
  16. False spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) Zone 2
  17. Fragrant currant (Ribes odoratum) Zone 2
  18. Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) Zone 3
  19. Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) Zone 2
  20. Hazel (Corylus) Zones 3-6
  21. Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata) zone 5b
  22. Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’) Zone 4
  23. Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolia) Zone 5
  24. Pin cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica) Zone 2
  25. Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) Zone 3
  26. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, syn. stolonifera) Zone 2
  27. Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa, some cultivars)  Zone 3
  28. Running serviceberry (Amelanchier stolonifera) Zone 3
  29. Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) zone 2b
  30. Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) zone 2b
  31. Shadblow serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) Zone 4
  32. Siberian dogwood (Cornus alba) Zone 2
  33. Silverberry (Elaeagnus) Zones 1b to 7
  34. Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) Zone 3
  35. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos) zone 3
  36. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina and glabra) Zone 3
  37. Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) Zone 2
  38. Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) Zone 2
  39. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) area 6b
  40. Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) Zone 2
  41. White poplar (Populus alba) Zone 4
  42. Wild Rose (Rosa, many species) zones 2 to 5
  43. Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) Zone 4

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “Trees and Shrubs that Get Around

  1. Pingback: Containing Wandering Perennials | Laidback Gardener

  2. Was trying to identify grey poplars that grow in this area…just spent an hour and a half, and this post was key, with its inclusion of white poplar, in helping me find the correct tree!!! It’s one of my absolute favorites, despite the fact that the root suckers seem like a right pain to deal with. Many thanks for your help!!

    • Yes, I thought about including trees in the article, but figured it would make it too long. Obviously, it’s exactly the same situation and the suckers can be harvested just as easily.

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