Top-grafted Trees: Rarely a Good Choice

You’ve all seen them: miniature trees with a straight trunk and a ball of foliage on the top or long branches that weep to the ground. They’re called top-grafted trees, because they are created by grafting one type of tree (actually usually a shrub rather than a true tree) on top of the upright stem of a related plant, giving the impression of a small tree.

Caragana arborescens ‘Pendula’. Photo: Wilrooij.

Weeping varieties

Weeping varieties such as weeping caragana (Caragana arborescens ‘Pendula’) or weeping larch (Larix decidua ‘Pendula’) are the most common, but you’ll also see what I call green lollipops: rounded shrubs grafted on a stem, such as dwarf lilac Korea (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) or tree roses (Rosa cv). These plants can seem like a really great idea, because they never grow in height and provide a miniature tree effect that fits well into many landscapes… but sadly they rarely live very long.

Top graft on cherry tree. Photo: Kobako.

Weak Point

In plants, a graft remains a weak point for the plant’s entire life. When the graft is at the base of the plant, as in dwarf apple trees, it is relatively well protected from the elements and usually will survive for decades. But in top-grafted trees, the graft, as the name suggests, is at the top of the stem. Therefore it is always exposed to the elements: sun, cold, wind, heavy snow, ice storms, etc. Sometimes the grafted part simply gets too heavy and snaps right off the “tree”. 

As a result, probably not 3 top-grafted trees out of 5 are still alive 5 years after they are planted. After 10 years, not 1 in 5. Even when they do survive for a few years, often half of the graft dies, creating an unbalanced effect, with all the growth occurring on one side. There are always exceptions, of course: a top-grafted tree that lives a normal life and survives as long as any other specimen of its species, but these are the exception to the rule.

Larix decidua ‘Pendula’. Photo: Weeping varieties

These mini trees are expensive, short-lived and prone to suckering, frost cracks, insect infestation, pernicious rot and much more. The wise gardener will avoid them and plant something cheaper and longer-lived.

This text was first published on this blog on September 1, 2014. It has been revised and the layout updated.

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.

1 comment on “Top-grafted Trees: Rarely a Good Choice

  1. All of the English walnuts of the formerly vast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley were grafted. Most were grafted at grade. Some were grafted up because the black walnut understock had roughly textured dark bark that was not susceptible to sun scald like the smooth white bark of English walnut is. I do not remember sun scald being a problem for those that were not grafted high, just because the trees were too fully foliated (through summer) to leave their trunks exposed.
    The problem that I have with high grafts of weeping flowering cherries is that so-called ‘gardeners’ do not know to remove suckers from below the grafts. Within a few years, the variety below the graft dominates, and eventually kills off the weeping flowering cherries. The same happens with low grafts also.

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