Root Girdling Injury to Tree Trunks

— Written By Thomas Glasgow and last updated by Jami Hooper
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The images below show a severe case of girdling injury to a mature tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), as recently observed in a residential landscape in Craven County. It seems likely that the tulip poplar germinated in between a couple of major roots at the root flare (or root collar) of the already-established red maple (Acer rubrum) to the left. As the years went by, both the tulip poplar trunk and red maple roots expanded in diameter. The tulip poplar has gotten the worst of the bargain, as half or more of its trunk is wrapped around by the red maple roots. As explained by Harris, Clark & Metheny (Arboriculture, 4th edition), “Trees and shrubs are weakened and can be killed by roots that girdle the trunk and main roots. When a root circles a trunk or another root and they both continue to enlarge, each will be deformed at the point of contact, particularly when young. Initially, the movement of food from the top to the roots is restricted and root growth is slowed; then the entire plant is weakened and, if severe enough, the trunk will break at the girdle.”
The tulip poplar in question has a slight lean towards the house, and is close enough and large enough that much of its canopy hangs directly over and above the house (creating a lightning side flash risk, among other issues). In addition to the structural weakness resulting from the girdling red maple roots, tulip poplar as a species is considered to have low wind resistance in hurricanes. For example, a southeastern U.S. survey of hurricane damage by Duryea, Kampf and Littell (Arboriculture & Urban Forestry 2007, 33(2):83-97) arranged selected native trees into four categories:  Highest Wind Resistance, Medium-High Wind Resistance, Medium-Low Resistance, and Lowest Wind Resistance. Tulip poplar fell into the fourth or weakest category.
Removal of large trees can be expensive, and the loss of shade and aesthetics can be substantial. However, in many cases the evidence does point towards a decision to remove and replant, as opposed to “let’s wait and see what happens”. Consider contacting a certified arborist for evaluation of any large trees on your property that you may be concerned about.
Two trees
Two trees touching at base