Woods Whys: How Do Trees Heal Wounds on Trunks and Branches?

Woods Whys: How Do Trees Heal Wounds on Trunks and Branches?

Wounds will always remain within, but trees compartmentalize these injured areas to prevent decay and allow new growth to continue outward. Photo by Kenneth Dudzik / U.S. Forest Service

Somehow trees put up with all manner of injury and assault during their lives. They have to: they are rooted in place and cannot move to avoid injury. Whether it’s ice- or wind-stripped branches or dings from the lawnmower, trees are quite commonly beat upon. Indeed, a mature, healthy forest tree might easily have had a thousand wounds – wounds that have the potential to expose the inside of the stem (and thus the rest of the tree) to bacteria and fungi, which can lead to disease, decay, breakage, and death.

In order to survive, trees must overcome their injuries. But technically they don’t heal their wounds, at least not the way that human and animal bodies repair, restore, or replace damaged cells or tissue. Trees are built in layers of cells that are bound by rigid walls in a modular, compartmented way. This structure dictates their wound response.

During each annual growth period, trees build their trunks and branches outward from a layer of actively dividing cells. Increments of new wood are added in a cone shape, enveloping the previous year’s smaller, cone-shaped increment. Picture stacked traffic pylons. Thus, trees grow ever upward and outward, in front of themselves, both in length and in girth.

When a cell is damaged, a tree cannot go back and fix or replace it. But it can limit the damage from any given injury by containing it and excommunicating it from the rest of the still-growing tree. The trick is in sealing, not healing. The focus is on resisting the spread of damage – especially infections of bacteria and fungi and the decay they cause – by isolating the wound and then growing beyond it.

Trees close wounds in two separate processes that create both chemical and physical boundaries around the damaged cells. First, they produce what is sometimes called a reaction zone, altering the chemistry of the existing wood surrounding a wound and making it inhospitable to decay organisms. Then, they build a barrier zone to compartmentalize the injured tissue with new tissue called “callus” or “wound wood” growing outward. If all goes according to plan, the callus growth covers and seals the wound and allows new uncontaminated wood to grow over and beyond it.

Unfettered by bark pressure, the responding callus cells on the edges of a wound grow freely and form elongated rolls. These are the “ribs” of new growth you see incrementally enclosing wounds, such as on an increasingly less visible branch pruning stub. This new growth separates the wood present during the injury from the new wood formed after. The rate and effectiveness of this response differs by tree species and health. Both functions, the chemical and the physical, are necessary but they occur somewhat independently of each other. Rapid wound closure on the outside of a wound does not necessarily indicate that the internal reaction zone has successfully thwarted the spread of an infection.

Understanding the workings of wound response in trees underscores another difference between the way the process works in trees versus people. Whereas we may do well to slather a cut with anti microbial ointment and cover it with a bandage, this is decidedly not helpful to a tree. Applying paint or tar or other dressings and fillers – while a great temptation to tree lovers everywhere – actually interferes with the normal progression of a tree’s wound response and should be avoided. Trees need to seal and close, and generally they do this much better without additives.

It’s not a perfect system and decay abounds in all healthy forests. But when trees are able to compartmentalize wounds and contain them with new growth, infections remain localized and do not spread to existing undamaged, uninfected wood. Given just how prevalent wood rot is in trees – even otherwise healthy, seemingly defect-free trees – it becomes clear how well this tree injury defense system works. Wounds remain encased and the trees simply grow around them.

Every wound ever suffered remains within a tree, but while they may not heal, most trees do get closure.

Michael Snyder, a forester, is commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.

  1. Morganne Keplar
    Sep 03, 2016

    I am wondering if lose, cracked bark and wood bug-riddled under the bark should be left on the tree or finely trimmed away close to the adhering firm bark of an elderly cherry tree. Much of the lower bark is lose and cracked up to two feet, with a third intact. The foliage right now(Sept) seems plentiful, but don’t know if it had fruit or not.

  2. Dave
    Sep 07, 2016

    I don’t think it would hurt to trim off the dead matter, Morganne. But I’d be careful not to cut into any living tissue. Trees compartmentalize their wounds, so re-wounding the tree will just add stress.

  3. Drew
    Dec 29, 2016

    Great article. I have been an arborist in charlotte, NC for years and have owned my own charlotte NC tree service for quite some time now, and caring for trees has been more of my job description than simply removing them. Knowing about the sealing process has been a huge part f my business, because through this we have brought back many trees to life, and helped them flourish. I appreciate the compartmentalization process of a tree. They work a lot like we do in my opinion. Glad I ran into this. Great read.

  4. Kimberly Fitzgerald
    Feb 20, 2017

    I’m not your average reader on trees. (Although, this article does explain why my Weeping Willow survived Oreo the cat’s near destruction).  However, in doing research for my new book I found your article here very insightful and helpful in understanding the unique “healing” properties of trees. It’s created and built in. I’ll be using this helpful information to further explain how humans are also created to heal but we need to “contain” our wounds for further growth. Thank you for your help.

  5. Susan Weinstein
    Sep 16, 2017

    We have a mature oak tree that was split by lightning about 2/3 of its total height. Some bark was lost along the edges but no girdling occurred. Our arborist says the tree can survive but recommends applying a product to keep the bugs (bark bordered and carpenter ants) from infesting and ultimately killing the tree secondarily. This seems at odds with your article but, bugs were not mentioned..  Thoughts?

  6. Brooke
    Oct 04, 2017

    I have a “prarie cascade” willow that I just planted a few months ago and was devastated to notice some deer damage past few days.  Majority of branches are still attached, but there is a lot of scuffing and rubbing of the tree midway…everything I read has had different opinions.  I really want to make sure it winters ok; do I really just hope it can mend without any intervention?

  7. Mike Roberts
    Dec 12, 2017

    Does the damage done to the interior of a tree trunk (bole) have a name? I’ve found the annular rings “delaminated” as it were perhaps as a result of wind torque.

  8. Sam sitterle
    Jul 05, 2018

    How quickly will a tree seal itself after a chainsaw cut injury? I am told 48 hrs. Is this correct? Oak Wilt is our concern down here. 

    Thank you,

    Green Grow Organics

  9. Dave Mance
    Jul 06, 2018

    I don’t know the answer, Sam, and i would be skeptical of anyone who claimed to. It will likely depend on species, where the tree’s growing, tree health and vigor, age, the extent of the wound, and a dozen other variables.

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