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How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree

It can be difficult to identify a dead or dying tree. Here's what to look for first.

While it might seem obvious, it is actually difficult for the untrained eye to spot a dead or dying tree. At Leaf&Limb, removal is always a last resort, so we want to be completely sure that there is no other way to save the tree before we make the first cut. Here are a few ways you can check if your tree is dead of dying:

Leaves

The clearest evidence of whether or not your tree is dead or dying can be found by looking at the leaves. Some trees will take a while to leaf out, but if your tree does not have a single leaf in August, then there is a significant problem.

To determine a tree’s health in the winter when there are no leaves, look for tree buds. These can be tough to spot, but they look like small dots along the ends of the branches (think of a connect-the-dots puzzle). If you don’t see those dots along the ends of the branches, the tree could be dead.

Evergreen trees are a bit different. They typically stay green all year round and cycle their leaves out. It’s common for the interior of the canopy to “shade out,” which means that the first needles to fall are the ones from the inside of the plant closet to the trunk. If you’re seeing the opposite happen – needles or other evergreen foliage turning brown at the ends of the branches first – then that tree might be dying.

Generally speaking, if any tree or shrub has brown leaves or needles in the summer, something is likely wrong. Be sure that it is not late enough in the season that you are just seeing the foliage changing color for the fall.

Branches

We’ve looked at the leaves of trees, but what do branches tell us about a tree’s health? One of the tell-tale signs that a tree is in decline is when we see multiple branches dying from the tips. If these multiple branches make up a large section or the entire canopy, the tree is undergoing stress and declining in health.

An important note about branches: a single dead branch or twig does not mean the entire tree is dead. All large trees will have some dead branches; it’s part of their life cycle. However, if a tree has multiple large, dead branches, then something could be wrong with your tree.

One way we tell if a branch is alive is to test a small twig by bending it between two fingers. If it bends easily, then it is alive. If it is brittle and breaks, it is likely dead. We recommend testing this in a few areas so that you are not just testing a single dead branch. You can also scratch a small section of the bark. If you see green, the tree is alive. Both of these strategies work better for smaller trees and shrubs. Like we said above, it is common for larger trees to have dead branches. If you find a few brittle twigs on a 100-year old oak tree, that does not mean it is dead.

Trunk

Moving down the trunk of the tree, there are a few signs that indicate a tree is dying. First, large sections of bark peeling off the trunk of the tree (if it’s not a trait of that species) might be the sign of a problem. Second, if there is a large amount of rot, especially if the rot goes all the way around the trunk, the tree might need to be removed.

Surprisingly, a hollow tree trunk does NOT mean that the tree is dead. A tree can still thrive and be sturdy with a hollow center. Think of it like a steel pipe: hollow in the center, but still very strong.

Roots

Finally, let’s look at the base of the tree. There are several issues there that might mean the tree is dying. First, a large number of mushrooms growing at the base of your tree might indicate significant root rot. Another thing to look for at the base of the tree is if the roots are lifting out of the ground. We are not talking about roots growing on the surface, but rather roots that are seperating from the ground. This can indicate that the tree is destabilized. In both cases, tree removal should be considered.

Other Considerations

If you’re not sure why your tree is dying, one common cause is construction damage. Everything from driving over roots with heavy machinery to digging a trench for high-speed Internet can damage a tree’s root system, causing the tree to die or become destabilized. If there has been significant construction and you’ve noticed that your tree’s appearance has changed, then the digging or compaction might have caused irreparable damage.

It’s also important to mention that not all dead trees need to be removed. If it is not a potential hazard, meaning it will not cause harm to people or property when it falls, then we typically recommend you leave it. Dead trees are habitats to bats, birds, and other animals, and they play an essential role in the ecosystem.

Should trees close to houses or building be removed?

Healthy trees close to houses or other buildings do not usually need to be removed. We often get calls to remove healthy trees just because they are close to a home or building. These trees, especially if they are mature, are usually very stable. If they are well taken care of, properly pruned, and don’t show signs of decay, they can stay where they are without posing a threat to your property.

Unfortunately, there are no set of guidelines that will say with 100% certainty when a tree should be removed, but hopefully you’ll now be able to spot signs of decay earlier. If you think a tree might be dead, it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion before removing it.

As always, contact us if you have questions about how to spot a dead or dying tree in your yard or community.

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