How to Deal With Suckers and Watersprouts on Trees

Image of a tree with watersprouts

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In horticulture, the terms sucker and watersprout refer to vigorous new shoots that grow from root stock or dormant bud tissue on trunks and branches. They are mostly a problem on fruit trees and some types of landscape trees. Suckers and watersprouts may occur on any tree when the tree has experienced stressful conditions, such as drought, severe pruning, or loss of a limb. 

Watersprouts vs. Suckers

Watersprouts and suckers are similar, but not exactly the same. They differ primarily in their location on the tree.

A sucker is effectively a new propagation of a tree, but one that originates at the basil root level rather than by a seed. Suckers typically sprout up from below ground level, or very near the ground. They grow up as an extension of the roots. On grafted trees, such as many fruit trees, the sucker will sprout up below the level of the graft. If left to grow, the new tree will have the characteristics of the root stock tree, not the grafted stock. Such suckers should be removed when they appear.

Certain species of trees typically propagate themselves through this type of reproduction, and suckers are also common on them. Privet and hazel trees are two such species. Here, too, suckers are considered invasive and should be removed. Left unattended, suckers can gradually overtake a yard. 

A watersprout is a form of shoot that originates above ground, on the tree's trunk or branches at the location of latent bud tissues. Watersprouts are very likely to arise in response to pruning or damage to the tree, such as branches broken off in storms. They are undesirable because the tissues in a watersprouts are not as strong as normal branches. In fruit trees, watersprout branches normally produce little, if any, fruit. 

Sucker sprouts and water sprouts can sometimes provide clues to a tree's health. Both types of sprouts may indicate that there is injury or dead wood above the level of the sprouts. This is likely when a tree without a history of such sprouting begins to send out suckers and watersprouts. They are a compensatory mechanism, an attempt by the tree for to find vigor when it is not being provided by other vegetation. 

How to Remove Suckers and Watersprouts

It is best to remove suckers and watersprouts immediately. These shoots divert energy from upper growth on the tree, and removing them will promote development of the upper greenery. Suckers and watersprouts can also quickly ruin the aesthetic appearance of a tree.  

Some care should be taken when removing suckers and watersprouts to ensure clean edges. Tearing away sprouts can leave ragged edges where bacterial or fungus can take hold, so cutting them away with sharp tools is a better strategy. 

  1. Mix one part bleach and 10 parts water in a bucket.
  2. Dip your hand pruner or lopping shares into the bleach solution to sterilize the blades. 
  3. Cut away the sprout with the blade held at a 45- to 60-degree angle, as close as possible to the trunk, tree branch, or tree base. The goal is to cut inside any bud areas where new sprouts might emerge. Take care not to damage the trunk or main branch. 

Where suckers or watershoots are extremely prevalent, or when they appear suddenly on a tree with no history of them, it may indicate a major problem with the tree. Removal of the tree may be your only solution when suckers are too numerous. You will then need to apply a brush killer to control the sprouts that may come up from the remaining stump.