Is My Tree Dead?
August 3, 2020
Determining whether a tree on your property is dead or living can sometimes be a tricky undertaking. While it is possible to revive sick or dying trees, bringing dead trees back to life is typically not feasible. There are several reasons to remove a dead tree — but how exactly can one tell if a tree is dead, sick, or healthy?
Symptoms of a Dead Tree
There exist a few visual signs, as well as some tests you can perform on the tree itself, that may signify it’s no longer living.
If they’re abnormally bare during a season they shouldn’t be — like spring or summer — there’s a good chance the tree is too far gone to save. Sometimes, branches on only one half of the tree are bare while the other half is full. In this instance, the tree may be diseased on only one side, causing the tree to become lopsided and eventually fall. If the tree is deciduous, check to see if the leaves cling during the winter, as this is another sign the tree may be dead.
Fungus on the tree’s trunk is oftentimes an indication that the internals of the trunk are rotted out, and anything beyond the living fungus is dead or dying. However, fungus on a tree isn’t an automatic death sentence — tree treatment may be a viable option to restore health.
Look out for cracks that run vertically along the tree trunk. Severe damage can indicate the tree is in bad health. As trees age, bark will fall off the trunk and — if it’s healthy — grow back. However, if a tree isn’t as healthy, you’ll notice areas (either large and small) on the trunk that are smooth areas of wood with no bark covering them.
A sign a tree’s roots are damaged is if the tree appears to be leaning. If the roots are weak or damaged, epicormic shoots (sprouts that indicate the tree is experiencing severe pressure underground) may be present at the base of the trunk. Things like excavation projects, construction, shallow root systems, extreme element exposure, or loose soil compaction can also factor into root health.
Performing a Scratch Test
Just under the dry, outer layer of bark in a tree’s trunk lies a cambium layer. In a living tree, this is green; in a dead one, it is brown and dry. Scratching bark to see if the tree is alive involves removing a portion of the bark’s outside layer to peek at the cambium layer. Here’s what you can do:
Use your fingernail or a pocketknife to remove a small strip of exterior bark. If you perform the tree scratch test on a trunk and see green tissue, the tree is alive. However, this doesn’t always work so well if you apply it to a single branch, since the branch in question may be dead while the rest of the tree is alive.
Keep in mind that during times of drought and high temperatures, a tree may “sacrifice” branches, allowing them to die for the rest of the tree to stay alive. When performing a scratch test, choose several branches in different areas of the tree or stick with the trunk itself.
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