Video | How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree

Watch to learn what signs you should be looking for that tell you your tree might be dead or dying.

When was the last time you gave your tree a checkup? Oooh, great reflexes, bud; looking good! This right here is one of my favorite oak trees. I give it a checkup often because I want to catch issues before they become serious. If I am not checking up on this tree, something could happen, and it could die. That would be expensive, but more importantly, It would be a tragic loss for me and this property.

Hey, I'm Basil. And today, we are talking about finding the issue that could be killing your tree. I want to start with this tree because it is very dead, and I want to show you some of the ways I know it's dead. Check this out: First of all, the bark is completely peeling off. And not only that, but underneath the peeling bark, we see fungal hypha. This is decomposing the tree. It's definitely not a good sign. If we look further up in the canopy, we see that there's nothing green up there, no pine needles, no leaves, and even the branches are looking stubby, and that is because they are falling apart as they rot. So again not a good sign. Finally, I am going to use this sounding hammer. To have a listen, and I can tell you this tree sounds hollow, again not a good sign. We know this tree is dead. The next question is, what should we do with it?

Common wisdom is we should remove it. But I would argue this is very important for ecology. I will give you two little examples that are interesting. Number one, bats love dead trees. Well, if you have bats on your property, they are eating thousands of mosquitos every day, so now you're getting free pest control from the bats living in the dead tree.

Woodpeckers also love dead trees. If you have woodpeckers on your property, they're also eating insects from other live trees and, therefore, providing you with free pest control services. So right there are two little examples where dead trees are great for your property. There are so many other examples. These dead trees are teeming with life.

But on the other hand, we do have to worry about the fact that this tree is a hazard. What would happen if the tree fell? Would it hit a house or hurt people? Is the likelihood high, or is it low? What would the consequences of this thing hitting something important? So these are the two things we must weigh against each other whenever we are considering whether or not to remove a dead tree.

So we have seen ways to spot a dead tree. Now I want to show you ways to identify trees that could be dying or declining in health. So right here, we have a gorgeous elm tree. And there is beautiful green foliage in much of the canopy, but we have this one chunk here where there's nothing. That is not a good sign. You will also notice on the other side of the tree, the foliage is dying from the outside and working its way in toward the trunk. That's one of the classic signs we look for. Anytime the canopy has death or losing foliage working from the outside in towards the trunk, that is a sign of declining health. In some extreme cases, we might see a tree that has no foliage when it should have lots. That tree might actually be fully dead.

In contrast with the elm, you will notice here we have a lot of dead in the interior of the canopy and the lower portions of the tree. This is nothing to worry about. It is very normal for trees to shade out old growth, so long as the outside of the canopy is green and healthy, this is usually a good sign. So to reiterate, death from the outside moving in, not a good sign. Death on the inside or lower portion, not as worrisome.

Another place we look for issues is the tree trunk. So this tree has a lot of green foliage and a lot of living tissue. It's alive and well. But I want to show you some of the things we look for. For example hollows, hollows can be a problem. They are something to watch. We look for splits. This tree doesn't have any great examples of splits. But there are little splits. You might have larger splits due to movement, ice, lightning strikes, and that kind of stuff. We look for bark that is falling off. In this case, we see barking falling off of dead portions of the tree, as well as live portions of the tree. That is certainly something that needs to be addressed—and finally, oozing. Anything oozing is not a good sign. It could be construction damage; it could be pest activity. Oozing is something to watch.

Another area to examine is the space around the base of the tree. There is a lot to look at here, so for this tree specifically, it has a very serious lean. I'm worried that it might actually be falling over. One way to check that is to feel around the base and the back of the trunk, opposite the lean. Is it soft? Am I seeing roots lifting up? Sure enough, it is soft, and I am seeing roots protruding out of the ground. This could be a sign that this tree is actually failing.

Another problem we will see very often is soil compaction. This is soil that has been squished due to construction and all kinds of activity. It makes it very hard for a tree to be healthy. We check that with a screwdriver. All you have to do is just drive your screwdriver into the ground. You should be able to push it 8 to 12 inches into the ground. And sure enough, here we've got nice, loose soil. I mean, look at that; we are getting a good solid foot. I think for most urban spaces, you will be lucky to get 4 or 5 inches. That does need to be addressed, or that tree is going to struggle to grow.

Another big category of things to think about is construction damage. So trenching, grading, crushing roots, all of that activity takes a big toll on the health of a tree -- anything from causing a decline in health to structurally destabilizing a tree. So that is a big class of issues to keep a close eye on.

It's really important to note that just because your tree has some of these issues does NOT mean it needs to be removed. Quite the opposite, most of these issues can be fixed. Trees are changing organisms, part of an evolving ecosystem. And they are so important; we need trees. And if we are going to live with trees, we need to give them regular checkups to keep them healthy and keep us safe.

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