University of Maryland Extension

Severed/Damaged Roots - Trees and Shrubs

severed roots

Back to Common Problems - Trees and Shrubs

When roots are severed or damaged a plant may wilt, dieback or begin to decline. Roots may be severed during nearby grading and construction, especially during excavation for streets, sidewalks, footings, foundations, and walls. Trenching for utilities may also sever roots. Roots can be damaged by prolonged environmental or site conditions such as long-term or repeated drought, or excess water, fertilizer or salt.  When roots are damaged, they can no longer absorb nutrients or water.  If roots are severed or damaged some buds and twigs may immediately die, weakening the plant. The weakened plant may then begin to show decline symptoms such as lack of vigor and reduced growth. Other stress symptoms can include wilt, scorch, and early fall color. Plants with severed roots show symptoms on the side of the plant where roots have been severed. Plants with damaged roots will generally show symptoms over the entire tree or shrub unless the  root damage occurred on only one side of the plant. These symptoms usually progress over a number of years. Most plants will survive and recover from damage that does not exceed 1/4 of the total root zone.

construction severed roots

dieback azalea

Roots severed during excavation

Dieback on Azalea

Management of plants with severed or damaged roots involves careful maintenance. Occurrence of severed roots may be reduced with careful planning to avoid root damage. Coordinate and consolidate utility trench locations.

severed roots from trenching near sidewalk

If size permits, consider careful transplanting of plants to a temporary holding area, then replanting them when construction or grading is completed. Water during periods of drought. Prune out any branches that die as a result of the reduced root system.

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