Tips to Avoid Trees and Transplant Shock


Trees and Transplant Shock

The Claim: Table sugar helps protect newly transplanted trees from shock.

The Facts: Researchers from the University of Washington report that 25 percent to 50 percent of newly transplanted trees die from a lack of water. Trees have extensive root systems, and much of the water and nutrient absorption takes place beyond the drip line. Even when nurseries manipulate roots to encourage thicker growth closer to a tree’s crown before harvest, as little as 5 percent of the tree’s root system may make it from the planting bed to the container or rootball in which it is sold.

The tree is unable to take up the amount of water and nutrients necessary for survival, creating a period of water stress known as transplant shock. Roots take years to fully support the crown after the tree is dug up, leaving it vulnerable to pests, diseases, and other drought-related problems.

Molecularly Speaking

A tree’s roots are its biggest sugar storehouse. When a tree loses 95 percent of its roots during harvest, it must photosynthesize and produce sugar to repair the damage. Photosynthesis requires water, but without sufficient roots for uptake, the tree is left in dire straits.

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One Lump, Please

Grocery store sugar is the same type that plants produce through photosynthesis, according to Dr. Glynn Percival of Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory, in Reading, England. Percival experimented using mixtures of “plain old white sugar” and water, which he applied as a root drench following severe root pruning. The rate of fresh root growth increased on some, but not all, species. Since the sugar is being added from an outside source, root growth can take place without the tree expending its own energy. More roots mean more water and nutrient uptake, less stress, and a quicker recovery. Researchers discovered that small concentrations of sugar were beneficial to birch trees, but harmful to oaks.


A number of factors contribute to transplant shock, with water stress at the top of the list. Increase root growth, and a tree will have a much better chance of survival. We’re hopeful that further research on this topic will eventually lead to an inexpensive, nontoxic, and potentially organic way to help trees survive transplant shock.

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