Plant and Soil

, Volume 387, Issue 1–2, pp 21–35 | Cite as

Plasticity of tree root system structure in contrasting soil materials and environmental conditions

  • Caroline ZanettiEmail author
  • Michel Vennetier
  • Patrice Mériaux
  • Mireille Provansal
Regular Article


Background and aims

Tree root system structure and development are difficult to assess and poorly understood in natural conditions because of soil heterogeneity and the difficulty in extracting mature tree root systems without damaging them. The purpose of this study was to understand root system development plasticity according to biological and physical parameters: species, tree age and size, soil material, water availability, slope angle, and climate.


Two hundred and forty-three mature trees from 12 species were uprooted from homogeneous French dikes fills. Root system structure (root number and size, root system span, depth and volume) was compared between two contrasting soil materials: fine and coarse.


Tree species had little influence on root system structure: all root system types and root size could be found for most of the species according to site conditions. Heart root systems were limited to fine material while mixed and tap root systems were found on coarse material. In coarse materials, trees developed few but rather large roots (>5 cm in diameter and >4 m in length). In fine materials, root systems had three times more roots but they were 40 % smaller and shorter. Roots were 20 % more numerous and 65 % larger on the downslope side due to water availability at dike or riverbank toe.


Root system structure was mainly influenced by soil material and water availability and far less by tree species. Tree root systems are opportunistic in developing in the direction where water and nutrients are plentiful: whatever the species, predicting its dimensions and structure requires a thorough investigation of soil and other environmental conditions. This study gives a new insight in root development: it will help predict tree root growth in various environments and particularly on dikes.


Tree root system structure Root number Root size Root distribution Trees on dikes 



This study was funded by IRSTEA, Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region, French National Research Agency (ANR-ERINOH project), by European Union (Interreg IV A France-Suisse 2007–2013) and by dike managers (EDF, CNR, AD Isère-Drac-Romanche, DDT Nièvre, SMAVD, Chambery Métropole, Conseil Général de l’Isère) who hired the technical staff and material to log trees, extract root systems and remediate damages to studied sites. The authors are indebted to many colleagues, technicians and students who contributed in data collection during sometimes difficult field campaigns, and particularly to Willy Martin, Roland Estève, Olivier Chandioux, Gaylord Doirat, Pierre Jean Moundy and David Fiorese. They thank several anonymous reviewers for their useful suggestions, as well as Maureen K. Corcoran and Pete Fulé for their comments, corrections and their help in language editing.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caroline Zanetti
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Michel Vennetier
    • 2
    • 4
  • Patrice Mériaux
    • 1
    • 4
  • Mireille Provansal
    • 5
  1. 1.Irstea, UR OHAX Ouvrages hydrauliques et hydrologieLe Tholonet Aix-en-ProvenceFrance
  2. 2.Irstea, UR EMAX Ecosystèmes méditerranéens et risquesLe Tholonet Aix-en-ProvenceFrance
  3. 3.ARBEAUSOLutions, 100 impasse des HouillèresMeyreuilFrance
  4. 4.ECCOREV FR 3098, Université Aix-MarseilleMeyreuilFrance
  5. 5.CEREGE, Europôle de l’Arbois, BP 80Aix-en-Provence cedexFrance

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