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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Monday - December 23, 2013

From: Denham Springs, LA
Region: Southwest
Topic: Diseases and Disorders, Trees
Title: Trees failing to prosper from Denham Spring LA
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I live in Louisiana. Out of all of the native trees that we grow, there are two in particular that always struggle no matter what the conditions are in which they grow. The first one, sassafras, is supposed to be a rapid grower. It is, but it never stays that way for long. Every tree that we've ever had dies back every year. Eventually, 50% of the trees we grow just die. We've grown them in wet, dry, and in between conditions, but the result is always the same. Does acidity play a major part? What about soil composition? The other tree is sweetleaf. We have had several Symplocos over the years, but despite reading about rapid growth. Every tree that we've had has not grown, at all. They simply leaf out in spring, and drop some leaves in late winter. They have not had a fresh growth tip in 3 years. They are only 2 feet tall. In addition, they have died in every soil we have used except for moist clay. Are there better soil conditions in which to grow them for maximum efficiency, or are the growth rates greatly exaggerated? Thank you for taking the time to read this and for any info you may have.

ANSWER:

Well, this IS a mystery. Both trees grow natively in Livingston Parish, LA near Baton Rouge in the central part of the "boot" of Louisiana. We found this out by looking at the USDA Plant Profile for each plant. We can rule out the possibility that you are trying to grow trees not native to your area.

USDA Plant Profile Map for Sassafras albidum (Sassafras)

USDA Plant Profile Map for Symplocos tinctoria (Horsesugar)

That leaves us to consider how and when they were planted. First, we followed each plant link above to our webpage on that plant to determine its best growing conditions.

Sassafras albidum (Sassafras)

"Growing Conditions

Water Use: Low
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade , Shade
Soil Moisture: Moist
Soil pH: Acidic (pH<6.8)
CaCO3 Tolerance: High
Soil Description: Rich, moist, sandy loams. Sandy, Sandy Loam, Medium Loam, Acid-based
Conditions Comments: Sassafras can sucker into a small grove, but is easily controlled as a single tree. It is an appropriate tree to introduce into disturbed sites with infertile soil. It grows most quickly in fertile soil, and though it prefers well-drained situations, it will tolerate soggy feet. Except for occasional iron chlorosis caused by high pH soils, the tree is relatively free of problems. Sassafras is allelopathic and can discourage the growth of certain other plants within its root zone."

Symplocos tinctoria (Horsesugar)

"Growing Conditions

Water Use: Medium
Light Requirement: Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Wet
Soil Description: Wet or moist, sandy or alluvial soils. Sandy, Sandy Loam, Acid-based."

We have to feel there is some aspect of transplant shock involved here. From our research, we feel you have the right kind of acidic soils, as well as climate and other conditions. Here are some questions we would like for you to ask yourself (as we don't do house calls) to get to the root (pun intended) of the problem.

Are you digging up the trees in the wild, perhaps without special preparations to protect the roots?

Are you purchasing them from the same nursery over and over without finding out if the nursery has been experiencing the same problems?

Are you planting them in December and January? We recommend that, in the South and Southwest, trees be planted in cool weather, not in the heat of summer.

Are you checking the roots to make sure there is no root damage and that the roots are not rootbound; that is, growing around and around in a circle, unable to get out into the soil with the tiny rootlets that actually access water and nutrients from the soil?

In already damp soils, are you watering them excessively? One of these trees calls for "low" watering and one for "medium." If you are adding unnecessary water, the roots could be drowning.

Are you fertilizing the trees to give them a boost? Plants being grown where they are native rarely need fertilizing and, in fact, fertilizer can hurt a tree already under stress as yours must be.

We suggest you contact the Louisiana State University Ag Center for Livingston Parish to find out if they recommend a soil test (for which they can provide the supplies) or if others have reported similar problems with these trees.

One last recommendation. This comes from our alter ego, Mr. Common Sense, who often butts in whether we want him to or not. He says if you keep planting the same trees in the same way and they keep dying that you should consider trying some other plant or tree instead. What you are doing is wasting precious resources like water, soil, money and back muscles for what may be, for whatever reason, a lost cause.

 

From the Image Gallery


Sassafras
Sassafras albidum

Sassafras
Sassafras albidum

Sassafras
Sassafras albidum

Horse sugar
Symplocos tinctoria

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