Gardening Pruning Trees

When Suckers Appear at the Base of a Tree

If you see a profusion of sprouts (suckers) at the base of a tree, it can mean nothing at all . . . but can also be a symptom of serious problems.

By Larry Hodgson

To most people, a tree has one trunk. It grows straight up for a certain distance, then it branches. So, one trunk, one tree. And most temperate climate trees do grow that way.

But sometimes you see sprouts appearing from the base of the tree or from its roots. Horticulturists call them suckers, as they use some of the nutrients that would otherwise go to the main tree. Still, they rarely do major damage, but you might want to keep them under control.

Certain trees naturally tend to sucker. If you leave them alone, they may end up looking more like a multi-stem shrub than a tree! In fact, many actually grow as large multi-stemmed shrubs in the wild. Nurseries only turn them in “trees” by careful pruning. A few of the shrubs thus turned into trees and sold as such in garden centers are Amur maple (Acer tataricum ginnala), Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) and Canadian serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).

Stress Leads to Suckering

But other trees mostly sucker only when under stress. And that’s a situation where you should keep your eyes peeled.

Prolonged or repeated drought, saline soil, damage to the upper branches or any major dieback all tend to stimulate increased numbers of suckers. So will heavy pruning. Dying trees in general, even if it’s simply from old age, tend to produce suckers, as if it were a last chance to save their life.

Ash infested with emerald ash borer producing a water sprout.
Ash infested with emerald ash borer producing a water sprout. Photo:

Suckering is also one of the major symptoms we associate with emerald ash borer. As the invading insect bores into an ash (Fraxinus spp.) tree’s upper branches, the tree often sends out suckers from the ground or lower on its trunk* to compensate. All to no avail: once an ash tree reaches the suckering stage, it can no longer be saved.

*Suckers that appear from the trunk rather than its base or its roots are called water sprouts in horticultural lingo.

Be especially concerned when a tree that never suckered in the past starts producing them. It may well be under attack. It would be worthwhile having an arborist inspect it.

Removing Suckers

You can remove a sucker by cutting it off at its base. Photo: Dammanns Garden Company

The best way of removing suckers is simply by cutting them off at the base with pruning shears. You can do this at any season, preferably when they are still young. (Larger ones leave a bigger wound that is more likely to become infected with a fungus or other disease.) If it sprouts from underground, you can often pull up on them or knock off a bit of soil to reach the spot where they join the root for the closest possible cut.

As for those that pop up in the lawn that surrounds the tree, you can often simply clip those back with the lawn mower. Or if the roots are truly far ranging, pull a few roots out entirely.

Don’t try spraying suckers with a herbicide (weedkiller), though. They’re still attached to the mother tree and weedkillers can migrate from the sucker to the tree itself and damage it.

And cut suckers again when they resprout. There really is no way of elminating them permanently.

If You Want to Keep the Sucker. . .

Suckers growing from the base of a linden tree.
You don’t have to remove a sucker. You can let it grow if that suits you. Photo: GFDL, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written the above as if it were obvious that you would want to remove the sucker. But you don’t have to. If you don’t mind your tree changing its shape (it will likely become denser, like a clump rather than an individual tree, if there are several at its base), that’s fine.

Of course, those that show up here and there sprouting from the tree’s vast root system could eventually lead to entire forest growing (aspens do that!), thus permanently changing the use of that sector. And that will be good or bad, according to your interests. I love my cutleaf staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’), for example, but I scrupulously mow down and cut back its suckers. One is plenty, thank you!

And if an ancient tree is dying and you’re hoping the sprout will replace its mother, be forewarned that the root system it inherits may be a weak one and that it might therefore not survive long. Or that it may hang on for ages, but grow only weakly. Plus, many decades will probably go by before it reaches the impressive size of the mother tree.

Young tree killed over the winter with young suckers growing from the base.
Here, the original tree didn’t make it through the winter, but suckers are coming up from its base. You could select one to keep and cut off the others to allow the tree to grow a new trunk. Photo: Ann,

When a young tree dies unexpectedly, though, and you let one single sucker grow on, you can often create a very nice remplacement fairly quickly!

Graft Traits Aren’t Carried Over to the New Tree

If the sucker comes from a grafted tree (most fruit trees, many flowering trees and trees with variegated or colorful foliage or a weeping habit are in that category), the sucker is mostly likely from the rootstock and therefore won’t be identical to the top growth. So, say, your crabapple with double pink flowers may well produce suckers with plain white ones while the suckers from that cute little weeping caragana will just grow straight up without ever weeping.

So, study your tree’s habits and take note if it suckers. If it belongs to a species known to sucker, like black locust (Robinia pseudacacia), little leaf linden (Tilia cordata) or staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), you’re probably already used to it suckering. But if this habit is something new, there might be something wrong. And it may be time to call in a certified arborist.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

9 comments on “When Suckers Appear at the Base of a Tree

  1. I really like the suckers growing on my three elm trees that were planted in June. We didn’t have a great monsoon season this summer and I know there was drought stress. But they seem healthy otherwise. I’ve been all over the web with the question “what if I LIKE my root sprouts” and your site is the only one that gives me permission to keep them and isn’t saying they will hurt my trees. So thank you!

  2. My 40 year birch tree is dying and large branches have fallen down. We had to cut it urgently as it was a hazard for humans and animals. There is un ugly stump from the former four branches and many suckers in the ground. What shall we do? Grind the stump and put sod?
    Wait for the suckers to grow and produce a new tree?
    Remove the stump with its roots?
    Thank you

  3. Abdul E.

    Wish I could post some pics on here to show what my tree is doing. About half of the branches on one side broke off during the January ice storm. Now there are suckers all around the base of the tree. I was hoping one of them would grow big enough to make up for the trunk that broke off with the branches. I think it’s a Bradford Pear tree.

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  5. Chrisdude

    Is it possible to root the suckers from a white ash? Some of my ash trees are under emerald ash borer attack, and sadly my wife decided to cut out a few trees some perfectly healthy ashes to thin my forest because there were too many “bugs” in my backyard forest. Anyways, the stump started throwing suckers up so I was wondering if they could be rooted then planted. I’ve sort of cut them out of the main trunk and for now stuck them in water, not sure if it will root but maybe you’ve had some experience? It may be too late in the year already (mid August)

  6. Suckers from below a graft are from the understock though. That is a problem for young citrus trees. Understock sometimes replaces the desired cultivar, particularly less vigorous cultivars, such as kumquats and Mexican lime. I prefer to peel young suckers from citrus trees because it leaves less callus to generate more suckers. Of course, I do not want to peel the bark off in the process.

  7. Anything in the Prunus is especially prone to growing in a thicket. Aspen, the bane of my existence.

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