When a tree is dug for transplanting, as much as 98 percent of its root system is left behind. When transplanted, often less than 5% of the absorbing roots are moved with the tree. While that's true for both large and small trees, larger trees lose a much greater mass and lateral spread of roots than smaller trees. Because roots of large and small trees grow at the same rate (roughly 18-inches a year) it takes the large tree several years longer to regain the size of its original root system. Thus, large trees often experience a long period of slow top growth after replanting. This period of slow growth should be expected since the tree is being supported by such a limited root system.
During this time, the cut-off root system is unable to supply the necessary amount of nutrients and water needed for normal growth. This extended period of reduced vigor often results in worry for the survival of the tree. During this time the tree is susceptible to drought and insect attack. This is one reason adequate watering and other maintenance is critical after replanting.
A 4-inch diameter tree and a 10-inch diameter tree planted at the same time will be of equal size after 13 years. This is because the total amount of the root system need for replacement is much more for the 10-inch tree. Even though similar percentage of roots are removed, the 4-inch tree will have reestablished the original root system at the end of 5 years. The 10-inch tree however will take 13 years to replace the roots lost at transplanting. Because the small tree has had several years of vigorous growth while the larger tree was under stress, the smaller tree actually overtakes the large tree in growth by the time the larger tree has restored its root-shoot balance.
And shelling out the big bucks for a large specimen is sometimes not worth the money. Younger trees are easier to plant, less expensive and studies show that they adjust better to new growing conditions, re-establish themselves, and recover from transplanting much more quickly and easily than bigger trees.
You may not see your baby tree turn into one of those incredible kings of the forest that we all imagine, but a young tree is like a child, fun to watch mature and develop. Pretty soon it will be a fixture in your landscape before you realize it.