Root-Shoot Connections (aka sectional growth) – when will pruning one kill the other?

Sometimes in a bonsai context it’s said that specific branches are connected to specific roots – often in discussions about pruning and carving. For example it may be suggested that pruning a specific branch will kill an associated root, or vice versa.

As I’ve learned over the last 6 months researching this site, when it comes to trees – ‘it depends’.

The effect of pruning branches or roots on the rest of the tree comes down to its ‘plumbing’ – that is, the way in which the xylem (water) sap and the phloem (sugar) sap flow around the tree. That plumbing is laid down as new shoots and other organs develop – each new organ has a connection to a vascular bundle with xylem and phloem ‘pipes’. These pipes (in reality different types of cells which connect to each other), then connect to the vascular system in a branch, then in the trunk, then to the roots.

Trees can have what is called ‘sectorial’ growth in one or both of these systems. Phloem appears to be more sectorial than xylem – there is less of it, it only runs around the outside of the trunk in a thin layer and it has fewer connections between cells than xylem. Since roots are dependent on phloem from leaves, this would suggest that roots might be more likely to die from a branch being cut than the other way around.

Xylem is a different system, and the way the xylem cells of a particular species are structured determines how sectorial that species is – trees with more connections between their xylem cells are less so (because water has more routes it can travel to reach an organ).ref

If you’ve read the post on xylem, you’ll know that all gymnosperms/conifers (and some angiosperms) accumulate water-conducting xylem rings over time and have many layers conducting at once. This type of wood is called diffuse porous. Some angiosperms have a different strategy – they regrow their conducting xylem every year and only use that one outer layer for water transport. These trees are called ring porous.

It may then be obvious to you that ring porous species are more sectored than diffuse porous species. This was confirmed in one study using dye injections into xylem vessels – diffuse porous Acer saccharum, Betula papyrifera, and Liriodendron tulipifera had dye show up in more leaves than ring porous species Castanea dentata, Fraxinus americana, and Quercus rubra.ref This is presumably because in diffuse porous trees there are more water conducting cells and more options for water to travel – it is less likely to get cut off.

Trees which have more isolated root – leaf paths include Quercus, Fraxinus, Prunus, Ulmus, Cotoneaster, Crataegus, Sorbus, Populus, Salix, some Acer and Olive.ref1 ref2 If you prune their roots, there is a higher risk of removing a xylem sap flow path to certain leaves and vice versa. Interestingly, if you look at anecdotal reports of ‘summer branch drop’ where trees drop their branches for no obvious reason, the species most susceptible to it appear to be these trees – Quercus, Fraxinus, Populus, Salix and Ulmus are all known for this phenomenon.ref This implies that a sector has died – perhaps due to embolism (air gaps in the xylem cells) – and the branch has dropped off as a result. The same could happen to your bonsai trees of this species, either by root pruning or by underwatering. Fellow bonsai enthusiasts have reported this in Salix (willow) and Morus (mulberry – also a ring porous species). The upside of this behaviour is the survival of the tree – since the death of one part of it doesn’t cause the death of the rest of it.

Trees which are more integrated include all gymnosperms/conifers and these have more uniform water distribution.ref Therefore they should be less susceptible to losing sectors due to root pruning or uneven watering. But once you’ve reached the point where they aren’t getting enough water overall (due to overly aggressive root pruning) or energy overall (due to overly aggressive leaf pruning), the tree is more likely to die since it is less able to keep one part alive separately to the others.

Note that trees may also drop branches for ‘economic’ reasons, when they don’t get enough return on investment from that branch, but that’s a post for another day.