How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree
It can be challenging 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 entirely sure that there is no other way to save the tree. Here are a few ways to determine if your tree is dead or dying:
The most straightforward way to determine whether or not your tree is dead or dying is to look at the leaves.Some trees will take a while to leaf out, but if your tree does not have a single leaf in August, 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 tiny 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. However, 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 closest 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.
An easy way to remember this: death from the outside moving in, not a good sign. Death on the inside or lower portion, not as worrisome.
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, something could be wrong with the 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. As 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.
As we move down the tree to the trunk, there are a few signs that can indicate a tree is dying. First, large sections of bark peeling off the tree's trunk might mean there is a more significant problem. (Note: some kinds of trees, like the Crape Myrtle, have naturally peeling bark.) Second, if there is a considerable amount of rot, especially if it forms a ring around the entire trunk, it can signify decay. Third, anything oozing from the trunk is worrisome. It could be a sign of pest activity or damage from construction and landscaping, but it is something to keep an eye on.
Lastly, we can also use a sounding hammer on the trunk. If it sounds completely hollow, the tree is likely dying.
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 is roots lifting out of the ground. We are not talking about roots growing on the surface but roots that are separating and lifting up from the ground. This can indicate that the tree is destabilized. In both cases, this could be a sign that the tree is failing.
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 soil 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 for bats, birds, and other animals, and they play an essential role in the ecosystem.
Should trees close to houses or buildings be removed?
Healthy trees near 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 structure. 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 is 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, getting a second opinion before removing it is always a good idea.
As always, contact us if you have questions about how to spot a dead or dying tree in your yard or community.