Contemporary Concepts of Root System Architecture
of Urban Trees
Susan D. Day, P. Eric Wiseman, Sarah B. Dickinson, and J. Roger Harris
Abstract: Knowledge of the extent and distribution of tree root systems is essential for managing trees in the built environment. Despite recent advances in root detection tools, published research on tree root architecture in urban settings has been limited and only partially synthesized. Root growth patterns of urban trees may differ considerably from similar species in forested or agricultural environments. This paper reviews literature documenting tree root growth in urban settings as well as literature addressing root architecture in nonurban settings that may contribute to present understanding of tree roots in built environments. Although tree species may have the genetic potential for generating deep root systems (>2 m), rooting depth in urban situations is frequently restricted by impenetrable or inhospitable soil layers or by underground infrastructure. Lateral root extent is likewise subject to restriction by dense soils under hardscape or by absence of irrigation in dry areas. By combining results of numerous studies, the authors of this paper estimated the radius of an unrestricted root system initially increases at a rate of approximately 38 to 1, compared to trunk diameter; however, this ratio likely considerably declines as trees mature. Roots are often irregularly distributed around the tree and may be influenced by cardinal direction, terrain, tree lean, or obstacles in the built environment. Buttress roots, tap roots, and other root types are also discussed.
Keywords: Root Depth; Root Extent; Root Restriction; Urban Forestry; Woody Plants