A girdling root wraps around the main trunk of a tree at, or immediately below the soil surface. Over time, as both the tree's trunk and the girdling root increase in diameter, the root quite literally strangles the trunk.
While there are several competing theories as to why this condition occurs, what is known for certain is that several tree species commonly planted in Central New York landscapes, including Norway maple (which includes the wildly popular red-leafed cultivar, ‘Crimson King’) and littleleaf linden are frequently affected. In fact, one of the littleleaf lindens in front of our home is gradually dying because of a large, girdling root that's deeply imbedded in the tree's trunk, at left.
The overall effect is that water and nutrients from the affected tree’s root system can no longer efficiently reach its branches, stems and leaves. This, in turn, reduces the ability of the tree's leaves to manufacture plant food (simple sugars and starches) through the process of photosynthesis, and the ability of its stems and branches to transport the food back down into the tree's root system.
Over time, this vicious cycle intensifies and expresses itself through a thinning and gradual dieback of its canopy.
In addition, the restricted point at the soil surface is often weakened and may snap during severe weather. Within ten blocks of our home, I've seen this rather dramatic type of mature tree failure occur more than a dozen times over the past decade, at right!
For a closer look at girdling roots, including the one that's killing our linden tree, click here to watch one of my "Garden Journeys" episodes on, you guessed it, girdling roots!