Root Food Storage (or, can I root prune before bud break?)

One piece of advice often given to bonsai enthusiasts is that root pruning should be avoided until bud break – usually the advice says you should wait until the buds are just about to burst and then you can repot to your heart’s content. But is there any scientific basis to this? The rationale for the advice is the belief that trees store energy for bud burst in their roots, which translocates prior to bud burst and is used to power bud swelling and opening.

Below is a chart showing non-structural root carbohydrate levels through the year for Prunus avium – these include sucrose, glucose, fructose, sorbitol, raffinose & inositol. FB indicates when the tree was in full bloom, and H was the fruit harvest. As can be seen, the root carbohydrates don’t deplete until after bloom has happened (this species flowers before leafing out) and then builds up again after leafing, is depleted at fruiting and then builds up again. So in this case the tree has used the majority of root carbohydrates after blooming, and they were built back up again once the leaves were out.

Labelling studies use radioisotopes to track where carbon has moved over a period of time. These have shown evidence that carbohydrates from roots are translocated to the first formed leaves and flowers in apple, cherry, pecan & grape.ref This study also confirms that “In broadleaf deciduous trees, non-structural carbohydrates are depleted during winter dormancy and at the onset of spring growth, then replenished during the growing season”, however “in evergreen conifers non-structural carbohydrates accumulate in the crown in late winter and gradually decrease during the growing season”.ref In evergreen angiosperms (Eucalyptus in this case) it was found that root carbohydrates did vary somewhat between a peak in summer and a minimum in spring, with starch being the major storage molecule – not only that, the researchers also found a lot more starch in the roots than in the lignotuber which is commonly believed to be some kind of storage organ (but apparently isn’t).ref

So in general it is correct that trees are using their root-stored carbohydrates to flower and leaf out – although it would appear that they use these for actual leafing and not just to get to the bud stage. So theoretically it may be better if you are doing a major root prune to do this once the leaves are out (taking care not to remove so many roots that the leaves can no longer access the water they need).

Another study looked at the age of sugars in the woody and fine roots of different tree species. They found a big difference between those of ring-porous vs diffuse-porous trees – remember that ring-porous trees have a smaller and more defined ring of conducting xylem – and in some of these trees the xylem completely seizes up during the winter and a new conducting layer is grown every year. In the chart below ring-porous trees are on the left and diffuse-porous (which includes all conifers) on the right.

In both types of trees, the youngest sugars are in the smallest coarse roots, suggesting these are being used as a sugar supply within a season. The sugars in the larger roots are aging with the tree, suggesting that the tree has obtained enough carbohydrates by other means (from photosynthesis or other storage tissues such stemwood) and hasn’t needed to tap the coarse root food storage.

The obvious difference between the two is that ring porous trees have younger sugars in their fine roots as well. It looks like ring-porous trees, which probably have a higher energy requirement since they need to regrow conducting xylem as well as buds & leaves, are tapping the fine roots for energy as well as the small coarse roots. Diffuse porous trees on the other hand do not appear to be using fine roots for this purpose.

But how much are roots contributing relative to other storage tissues in the tree? One study looked at a range of different trees in Harvard Forest near Harvard University in Massachusetts in the USA.ref See below for the data showing the change in total non-structural carbohydrates throughout the year starting at January and going through to December for five species. What’s obvious is that root storage plays a different role depending on the species – and is least important in the white pine.

What’s also interesting is that the only gymnosperm in the study (white pine), has a different peak – in June (midsummer when the sun is highest in the northern hemisphere). The other species peak in October after a season of photosynthesising.

Why do we care about this as bonsai enthusiasts? Well, stored energy helps to power processes within the tree, so whenever we prune storage tissues such as branches, stem & roots, we are removing energy reserves. So ideally we’d prune these when stores are lowest. When this is depends on the species but the above chart would indicate that actually August is a good time to remove roots – which goes against the advice often provided. Using the same chart would suggest that April pruning is best for branches. Which maybe suggests that bud break is being driven more by branch stored carbohydrates than root stored carbohydrates.