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Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

If you grow citrus, you may be familiar with citrus suckers. Suckers can wreak havoc on tree growth and production if left unchecked. Citrus sprouts can cause problems as well. Learn how to identify both citrus suckers and sprouts, why they are harmful to citrus trees, and what to do when you find them. 

What are citrus suckers?

Suckers are shoots that grow from the trunk below the bud or graft union. They are often mistaken for new growth from the desired citrus variety, but suckers are a different plant altogether.

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

Look for the graft union on the trunk, which will appear as a visible seam or bump. If the growth is coming out below the graft union, it’s likely a sucker.

Suckers will grow straight up and typically resemble a thin, spindly stem with few leaves. The leaves often have a trifoliate leaf shape (characterized by a leaf divided into three leaflets). Shoots may also grow up through the soil around the tree; these should also be removed.

Bud or graft union: Place where the bud of the citrus variety was grafted onto the rootstock. Look for an area where the bark changes texture or the diameter of the trunk changes. 

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

Rootstock: Another citrus variety that the citrus is grafted onto. Rootstocks are chosen to improve disease resistance, growth, or fruit quality. Standard rootstocks in Arizona are Flying Dragon, Trifoliate Orange, Sour Orange, Smooth Flat Seville, C-35, and Carrizo Citrange.1

What are citrus sprouts? 

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

These quick-growing shoots are also called “water sprouts” or “suckers” and can be found below and above the bud union. They are green and without bark (herbaceous). Sprouts growing above the bud union are the same variety as the desired tree (not the rootstock).

Citrus sprouts grow straight up either from the trunk or large limbs. They develop excessive thorns and little, if any, fruit. Their leaf shape may also differ from the grafted variety. 2 

Lemon trees especially often have vigorous, thorny sprouts that grow quite tall.

A note about “skirting”. Skirting is removing the low-hanging branches for a more tree-like and less bush-like appearance. Skirting is not recommended because it exposes the trunk to sunlight and removes the lower canopy fruit. A skirted tree may send out sprouts to protect its trunk. Sprouts below the graft line should be removed.

Skirted trees often struggle. Avoid removing low-hanging branches if possible.

Do you have to remove citrus suckers and sprouts?

Suckers take vital resources away from the desired citrus variety and can ultimately result in stunted tree growth and reduced fruit production. Fruit formed on suckers will be the rootstock variety – usually a bitter or sour orange.  If left unattended, citrus suckers will continue to sprout and can even take over the entire tree.

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

Sprouts left unchecked can make harvesting the desired fruit difficult. Also, If left to grow, sprouts and suckers can out-compete the grafted tree’s canopy. If sprouts form fruit, they will be unpalatable. A water sprout often cannot support the weight of fruit and may break.

You may leave sprouts that emerge above the graft line in place to fill in the canopy, but typically they are removed.

How do you remove sprouts and suckers?

If you do find citrus suckers on your tree, it’s essential to remove them promptly. The best way to remove suckers is by removing them by hand when they are young. Grasp the sucker firmly, and pull down. The sucker should break off near the trunk.

If they are too large to remove by hand, cut off with clean pruners as close to the rootstock as possible.

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

When to remove citrus sprouts and suckers

Remove small sprouts and suckers by hand at any time throughout the year.

Remove larger sprouts and suckers during the early spring. This gives the tree time to grow new foliage to shade newly exposed wood to damage from the summer sun. Removing larger limbs from MayOctober may open up the trunk or inside of the tree to sun damage. Any exposed wood should be protected from sunlight with white paint.2

Identifying and Dealing with Citrus Suckers & Sprouts

Citrus suckers and sprouts can be a nuisance for citrus tree growers, but with proper identification and removal, you can keep your trees healthy and productive.



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Wednesday 27th of March 2024

Great article but I have an old orange tree that is dead except for the suckers at the base. I want to keep it for the greenery alone. Should I cut all the suckers except one or just leave all of them?

Angela Judd

Saturday 30th of March 2024

Good question. Probably let one sucker keep growing up to become the "tree". But this is my best guess. I would also check with a local citrus grower or nursery for their recommendation.