Will A Tree Die If Its Roots Are Damaged?

Trees depend on their root systems for a variety of reasons. Roots help to anchor a tree and keep it upright, as well as draw water and nutrients from the ground. They also serve as a site for food storage, which helps give plants the ability to survive during difficult times.

But root damage is an unfortunately common problem among trees in urban and suburban areas. And because roots are so vital for a tree’s survival, prompt treatment is crucial. Without proper care, root damage can cause a tree to decline and eventually die. In some cases, root damage can even predispose a tree to failure, representing a serious safety hazard.

Below, we’ll discuss some of the common causes and symptoms of root damage, as well as some of the treatment strategies used to save such trees.

Common Causes of Root Damage

Tree roots can be damaged from a variety of causes, but some of the most common include:


A variety of animals – primarily insects – feed on the roots of trees. Fortunately, most such problems are somewhat self-limiting and respond to various exclusion and extermination techniques.

Soil Compaction

Compressing the soil around a tree’s roots can inhibit their growth and even cause physical damage. Soil compression can result from a variety of causes, but frequent foot traffic and the use of heavy machinery (such as that used in construction projects) are two of the most common. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to address compacted soil.

Trenching or Digging

Anytime you dig in the area around a tree, you risk damaging its roots. And unfortunately, this type of damage can occur while digging the shallowest trenches or holes, as the bulk of a tree’s find absorbing roots (the ones that do most of the heavy lifting for a tree) are found within the upper 12 to 18 inches of the soil.

Landscaping Activities

Mowers, edgers and weed whackers can all damage a tree’s roots and expose the tree to fungal and bacterial infection. This type of damage is especially unfortunate, as it is very easy to prevent through the use of mulch or protective barriers.

Symptoms and Sequelae of Severed Roots

Depending on the severity of the root damage, trees can exhibit a number of different symptoms. Some of the most common and obvious include the following:

Crown Dieback

Crown dieback refers to the progressive death of a tree’s canopy. In some cases, the damage will be limited to a single branch (or portion thereof), while other cases will involve the complete death of the canopy.

Poor Growth or Vigor

Trees with damaged roots cannot grow and thrive as they should. This can cause them to grow slowly, exhibit poor health or fail to reach their typical size.

Leaning or Soil Mounding

Many trees grow at angles, and this is not necessarily a cause for concern. However, trees that suddenly develop a lean can be very dangerous, as it suggests that some of their roots are failing or that there is a problem with the soil. Mounding soil (typically on the side opposite the direction of the tree’s lean) represents a safety emergency – always contact a qualified arborist immediately if you notice the soil rising around the base of a tree.

Premature Leaf Drop

Trees that cannot draw sufficient water or nutrients from the soil are often unable to maintain a full, vibrant canopy. This can cause their leaves to change colors or drop earlier than is typical for the species and region.

What Can Be Done to Help Trees with Damaged Roots?

Unfortunately, significant root damage can lead to the death of a tree. However, trees can often overcome minor cases of root damage – particularly when supportive measures are implemented. Some of the most common steps taken to support trees with root damage include:

  • Mulch Application– Mulch helps to protect and nourish tree roots, which can help them survive and produce new roots.
  • Radial Trenching – Radial trenching involves the careful excavation of soil throughout the root area and addition of nutritious topsoil or mulch, which helps to support the tree’s roots and encourage new growth.
  • Vertical Mulching – Vertical mulching is accomplished by digging holes in strategic places throughout the root zone, which are then filled with nutritious mulch or other materials to encourage root growth.
  • Fertilizer Application – In some cases, fertilizer can help support the development of new roots.
  • Root Pruning – Although it seems counterintuitive, trimming or pruning the roots of trees in specific locations can help stimulate the tree to develop new roots.
  • Supportive Measures – Because trees are often unstable, it is often necessary to support these trees with cables, braces or props to keep them upright while they regenerate a healthy root system.


If one of your trees has suffered from root damage or exhibits symptoms that suggest it has, contact your friends at Evergreen Arborist Consultants. One of our experienced arborists will visit your property, assess your trees and recommend a prudent course of action. We may not be able to help you save every tree that’s sustained root damage, but we’ll gladly provide you with every possible option for doing so.