Water Sprouts on Trees – How To Control Them (And Why)

Trees can showcase funny behavior, as demonstrated by their ability to produce several branches from one spot, also known as a water sprout formation.

They grow quickly and in unusual places, attempting to produce more energy quickly due to an outside stressor that has affected the tree. 

What are water sprouts? Water sprouts are newly grown branches that appear near the site of a physical disturbance on the tree. They grow in response to the loss of a branch or portion of the canopy. It is this loss of food-producing leaves that promotes fast branch growth to make up for the change in energy production. 

If you notice many young branches beginning to crowd your tree near the injury site, don’t panic! This is a natural survival response by the tree and can be dealt with in a few ways.

Continue reading for more information on how to distinguish water sprouts from normal branches, how they differ from “suckers,” and how to handle them in the best way for the health of your trees. 

Water Sprouts on Trees – What To Know

As a natural reaction to the need for more energy, a tree will produce water sprouts quickly to increase the number of leaves it has to create more food.

Because the tree needs food to survive, it usually grows water sprouts in poor locations and in high quantities very close to one another.

The best way to handle water sprouts is to thin them and continually prune and train them, eventually shaping them into nicely established branches. 

What Causes Water Sprouts on Trees?

A serious injury or stressful event will cause a tree to grow water sprouts. This can be in the form of injury by inclement weather or physical injuries like topping the tree or heavy pruning.

Other stressors like drought, soil compaction, and root loss can cause the tree to grow many water sprouts as a survival instinct. 

How To Identify Water Sprouts on Trees

The easiest way to identify water sprouts is by their location. Normally located near the site of an injury, you’ll notice they sprout where a branch was removed or lost or in areas that lack branches overall.

Since they grow quickly, they are thin and weak with longer internodal lengths and slightly different structures that cause them to look different than the rest of the branches.

Do Water Sprouts Turn Into Branches?

Water sprouts are branches, and they will continue to grow to full size as time passes. It is important to control them sooner than later so they don’t mature into large branches that are difficult to remove further down the line. 

Do Water Sprouts Produce Fruit?

Yes! Water sprouts can be grown to produce fruit, but fruits may be smaller than fruit found on well-established branches until the water sprouts establish themselves.

Water sprouts will do everything normal branches do, including flowering and fruiting like regular branches.

Are Water Sprouts Harmful to the Tree?

Water sprouts aren’t necessarily harmful but can cause larger issues over time. Since they draw upon stored energy to grow quickly, this depletes the reserved energy the tree needs to survive injuries.

They also grow weak connections to the tree and are likely to break off under little stress.

Water Sprouts vs. Suckers

Both water sprouts and suckers will grow in a similar fashion, but suckers grow from the ground at the base of the tree while water sprouts grow from almost anywhere along the trunk and branches.

Suckers will usually continually grow as the tree looks for more opportunities to produce energy while water sprouts will typically grow in response to a stressor. 

Should Water Sprouts Be Removed?

Not all water sprouts need to be removed, but odds are that you’ll want to remove most of them.

There are a few factors that should be considered when debating whether to remove them or not. 

To start, it is usually helpful to remove some of the water sprouts. Since the tree will likely grow many water sprouts in a small space, they should be thinned to focus on the ones that are growing the best.

You’ll want to remove any that are overlapping, growing at a precarious angle, or being outcompeted. You can then easily train the remaining water sprouts to grow into strong branches if you choose. 

If you topped a tree, which is never recommended because the tree will grow many water sprouts, you should remove the water sprouts.

If you allow them to grow, they will fill the same space from which you just removed the branch. However, they can be utilized to replace a weak branch that was removed. 

When To Let Water Sprouts Grow

Removing all of the water sprouts isn’t always the best solution when it comes to a plan of action. Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way.

You may want to reshape the tree’s structure. If so, focusing on a few of these water sprouts can allow you to use this new growth to replace branches that have been injured or weekend over time.

It is also alright to let them grow to restore the tree’s energy reserves. Since they grow for the very reason of increasing the amount of energy produced, allowing them to grow will accomplish this and help the tree’s energy reserves for future traumatic events. 

How To Get Rid of Water Sprouts

Getting rid of water sprouts can be difficult because the tree may grow them right back after you remove them.

You can simply continue to prune them off each time, or you can slowly reduce them, cutting off ⅓ of their length at a time to reduce the amount of shock you give to the tree.

This will slow their growth while the tree redistributes energy production throughout the tree. 

How To Prevent Water Sprouts

You can’t always prevent water sprouts, but there are a few things you can do to reduce the chances of them growing.

The first is not to top a tree. This is a bad practice and usually results in more water sprouts that grow prolifically exactly from where you removed the old branches.

The second involves reducing or mitigating stress overall. Try to avoid stressing the tree in conditions of drought, heavy pruning, or injury, and water sprouts will be less likely to grow. 

Related Questions: 

Should I Seal a Tree Wound?

Wound sealing used to be a common practice but has become frowned upon in recent years. The use of latex or paint-like sealants has been proven to slow the healing time of trees and create a suffocating environment.

New sealing products that are made of natural minerals and oils seem to help fight off infection while allowing the tree to heal. These are helpful and are not permanent, washing off with heavy rain and time. 

Can Suckers Be Transplanted?

Suckers can be propagated and transplanted after they grow roots. Remove any sucker and place it in water. After a few weeks, it should have roots and be ready to be planted.

This does not work if the tree has been grafted onto a rootstock because the sucker will be from a different tree variety, and in the end, it will grow into a different species. 

Final Thoughts 

A tree’s main focus is survival, and water sprouts are one of those tricks it has to do just that. Unfortunately, they aren’t always helpful in the way we want and can produce issues over time.

If you have water sprouts or are thinking of topping your tree, use this guide to better understand how easy it is to avoid them or how difficult it can be to deal with them after they’ve already grown.