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Water sprouts and shoots

Both water sprouts and suckers are clearly visible on our trees and shrubs in the early spring just as the new leaves are starting to appear. Suckers come from the underground root system of the tree or shrub; water sprouts emerge from latent buds located on either the trunk or branches. These are vigorous vegetative growths and both need to be removed.

Water sprouts arise from the trunk or branches of a mature tree. The term "sucker" applies to shoots that originate below ground, in the root system, and emerge above ground some distance from the trunk. The structure of water sprout regrowth is not as strong as natural tree growth, and the shoots are more subject to diseases and pests.


Water sprouts, also called epicormic shoots, are produced by dormant buds that we cannot see. They have a tendency to grow vertically from the trunk or branch. The growth is stimulated by some form of stress that the plant has been undergoing. Most often that stressor is incorrect pruning that occurred in a previous season. The principles of good pruning tell us to never remove more than one-third of the entire mass of the plant or you will weaken it.

When you can identify with some certainty what the stressor is, water shoots should be removed immediately. If you do not do this, they will increase rapidly in number and size, diverting important energy from the tree or shrub. Additionally, they reduce the air and light circulation on the inner branches of a tree or shrub. If left to grow on a branch, they will be significantly weaker and can becomes sites for breakage, damage or disease.

Tedious as it may be, remove all of them, using a sharp pruner, cut close to the tree. Do not leave a stub. In this way you will help your tree to heal properly. The best time to do this is early spring, but if you find water sprouts later in the growing season, remove them immediately. There is new tool on the market called “gardening scissors” and they are useful because they are small and lightweight, allowing you to get close to the branch or trunk.

Suckers grow from the rootstock of a tree. In some cases, they occur naturally and if a thicket is what you want, do allow the plant to continuously expand. Forsythia, blackberry, raspberry, prairie rose and chokeberry are just a few examples of plants that like to sucker. They are useful for windbreaks and privacy screening because they grow densely enough to be visually and physically impenetrable. Other areas where suckering shrubs are desirable are on steep or rocky hills, wood lots and transitional areas between your property and a waterway or a Green Acres zone.

Other “own root plants” that often sucker are aspen, buckthorn, red osier dogwood, mahonia, black locust, honey locust and Amur maple. You can remove these suckers by cutting away at the point of origin and paring away at the surrounding tissue to remove any dormant buds that are nearby. If you simply yank them out of the ground by hand, you will stimulate nearby buds into additional growth. Never use an herbicide on suckers, since it will also be absorbed by the tree roots.

Some naturally suckering species may extend their range beyond the boundaries of your property. Alianthus (tree of heaven) and Robinia (black locust) are known as fence jumpers because they exhibit this quality.

Though the top is dead from peach tree short life disease, suckers sprouting at ground level show the roots remain alive.

On grafted plants such as fruit trees and roses, it is most important to remove suckers. The suckers are arising from the rootstock below the graft union and this is a different plant from the one that you purchased. It is often more hardy and more vigorous and, in appearance, less desirable. You may have to remove some soil to find the origin of the sucker. And you may have to do it again if the sucker reemerges. It is important that you do not allow the suckers to persist for more than a season.

As always, before you deal with suckers or water sprouts, take a few minutes to file the blade of your pruner (or take it to your local hardware store, as I do) for sharpening. You will be so glad you did!

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