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:

Leaves

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.

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, 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.

Trunk

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.

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 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.

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 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.

Like this article? Pass it on.

Related Articles

Drought Resistant Trees
Tree & Shrub Planting
8 Ways to Accidentally Kill Your Tree When Planting
What is Tree Care?
Bigger is Not Better! 3 Reasons Why You Should Plant Trees When They are Smaller
How Invasive Trees and Shrubs Harm Our Local Ecosystem and One Way You Can Reverse That Damage
10 Invasive Plants to Watch Out for in Central North Carolina
Spring Scavenger Hunt
Fascinators and Flagella: How to Host a Tea Party for Soil Microbes
Compost Tea Makes Soil Healthy and Trees Happy
Video | Tea for Your Trees
Video | Mulch Volcanoes: Deceptively Deadly
Are Mulch Volcanoes Threatening The Trees in Your Neighborhood?
Video | Sheep, Seeds, and Swales: An Update from Project Pando
6 Reasons Why Planting A Native Tree Benefits the Environment and Our Local Ecosystem
Video | Drop That Rake: Save Time and Money by Leaving Your Leaves
Project Pando: Native Seed Drive 2021
Video | How to Plant a Tree: The Definitive Guide to Proper Planting
10 Simple Steps to a Perfectly Planted Tree or Shrub
Video | 3 Ways City Life Stresses Trees (And What You Can Do to Help)
Why is Tree Care Important? Outside of the Forest, Trees Face Unique Challenges.
Emerald Ash Borers are Killing Trees. A Simple Treatment Can Stop Them.
Video | Did you Know? The Secret to Fertilizing your Trees and Shrubs Without Using Chemicals.
Chemical Fertilizers: 3 Surprising Myths and Why You Should Choose Organic Matter Instead
4 Options for Fertilizing Trees and Shrubs the Cheap, Easy, and Healthy Way
Video | 4 Fundamentals of Tree Care
Not Sure How to Care for your Trees? 4 Simple Steps to Happy, Healthy Trees
[Parody] Video | Introducing Timber: the Only Dating App for Trees
Video | Introducing Archie the Arborist: 5 Amazing Tree Facts
We Show That We Care: The History of Project Pando
How to Spot a Pine Borer Infestation
Video | How to Plant a Tree: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Pick Up a Shovel
Drop that shovel! 5 Questions to Ask Before Planting
10 Native Trees to Plant in Central North Carolina
Holiday Gift Guide for That Special Tree in Your Life
Measure What Matters - We are B Corp Certified!
Video | Wood Chips: The Secret Ingredient to Healthy Trees
Top 10 Reasons to Choose Wood Chips Over Other Types of Mulch
Healthy Eating Plate for Trees
Video | Welcome to Project Pando
Video | Structure is Strength - How to Make your Trees More Safe Using Pruning.
Are Your Trees Safe? Prune to Make Them Stronger.
How to Select a Safe Branch for a Tree Swing
Your Dirt is Hungry
Video | Soil is Alive
Recipe: Savory Soil Casserole
How Trees Can Save Earth & What We Can Do to Help
Earth Day Bingo
Video | How Trees Can Save the Earth
Spring Tree Care Checklist
Spring Scavenger Hunt
Don't Make a Deadly Mistake: Top 10 Questions to Consider Before Pruning
Video | Planning to Prune? Use this simple framework and avoid deadly mistakes.
Video | Rooted by Our Purpose: A New Direction at Leaf & Limb
Why Dead Wood is Good Wood
Video | Want More Birds in your Backyard? Plant These Native Trees.
Best Native Trees for Butterflies
Fall & Winter Tree Care Checklist
Video | Fall Tree Care Checklist: Leave your Leaves, Plant New Trees, and Other Important Tasks
Top 10 Most Surprising Benefits of Trees
How I Learned to Love My Trees
Video | Trees are Critical to Our Future
Think Your Tree is Dead? Look a Little Closer
How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree
Video | How to Spot the Warning Signs: Dead, Dying or Hazardous Trees
Right Tree, Right Place: What to Plant and Where to Plant it
Video | How To: Choosing the Right Tree for Any Location
Our Favorite Tree Recommendations for Tricky Areas
Using Fertilizer? Think Twice Before You Do.
The #1 Reason Most Soil Tests Don't Work
Friend or Foe: When to Take Action Against Pests
The Insect Apocalypse is Here. How Can You Help?
16 Fascinating Facts About Fungi
Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Unsung Heroes of Tree Care
Case Study: Watch How Soil Improvement Turned this Tree from Sickly to Stately
From Dead Dirt to Healthy Soil in 7 Simple Steps
6 Pruning Mistakes to Avoid
How to Install and Enjoy Your Rain Gauge
Help Save the Monarch Butterflies!
4 Fascinating Facts About Mistletoe
Proper Care for Newly Planted Trees
8 Ways to Accidentally Kill Your Tree When Planting
Drop that Rake! Why Leaving the Leaves is Vital to Your Trees's Health
Save Time This Fall: Leave Your Leaves
Video | How To: The Fundamentals Of Watering
Video | The Fundamentals of Mulch: Proper Care, Installation, and Selection
Too Many Choices: Which Mulch or Weed Barrier Should I Choose?
When Good Mulch Goes Bad
How To: The Fundamentals of Mulch Installation
Five Ways to Spot a Thirsty Tree or Shrub
Soaker Hoses, Irrigation Systems, and Treegators, Oh My!
Drought Resistant Trees
How To: The Fundamentals of Watering
The Joy of Planting Native Trees in Durham, North Carolina
Brightening Up Neighborhoods Across Durham
Changing lives one seed at a time in Durham
Soil Decompaction - An Essential for Good Tree Health
Emerald Ash Borer is in NC!
Cabling & Bracing - Options for Making Your Tree Safer
Tree Care for Crape Myrtles
How to Prevent Tree Damage
Help! My Tree Has a Disease!
Dragon’s Blood Tree
Deep Root Fertilization: Myths & The Truth
The Dangerous Truth About Ghost Insurance Policies
Happy Trees Begin With Proper Planting
Trees & Shrubs Need Check-Ups Too!
How To Protect Your Trees from a Lightning Strike
Mulching: A Cheap, Easy Way to Increase the Health of Your Trees!
Crape Myrtles: A Tale of Love, Murder, and Proper Pruning
The World's Oldest Trees
Help! Insects are Attacking my Trees & Shrubs!
Tree Care: Save Money and Increase Your Property Value
Root Collar Excavation is Critical to Your Tree's Survival!
Tree Risk Assessment: The Key to Safer Trees & Peace of Mind!
10 Tips on How to Choose the Right Tree Service and Avoid Scams
Happy Trees Grow From Healthy Soil
TCIA Accreditation: Empowering You With Confidence
What is Tree Care?
Mulch Volcanoes: the Mt. St. Helens of Tree Problems
Trees Need a Thriving Soil Food Web
Call Leaf & Limb