How to Tell If а Tree is Dead or Diseased


Is your tree showing signs of a problem or poor health, such as a lack of leaves, dry branches, bark cracks, or others?

A sick tree can sometimes be saved with the proper measures taken, but if the tree is dead or beyond saving, it can pose a risk for you and others, especially when it is close to your home or another building or in an area where you spend a lot of time.

This is why it is essential to determine whether the tree is sick or is dead.

Here is how to tell if a tree is dead and tips for saving a sick tree.

Signs that the tree is dead or dying

While trees are beautiful and valuable assets to any garden or outdoor space and provide shelter to wildlife, shade, and sometimes fruits, there are cases when the tree becomes sick and starts dying.

Usually, the tell-tale signs are pretty obvious and can include the leaves withering and becoming brown, or the lack of new foliage in the spring, holes from pests, having dry branches, and others.

A dying tree and its branches can cause serious threats to people, animals, cars, garden furniture, appliances, and buildings or other structures.

Here are some of the most common symptoms that your tree is dying or is already dead to look out for in order to take timely measures to prevent accidents.

Brittle, missing, or cracked bark

When a tree starts dying, its bark will become brittle and will start falling off. The tree’s trunk and branches can develop long vertical bark cracks or may start missing whole pieces of bark.

Check for any deep bark splits which continue down to the wood, as well as for any cavities.

Cracks in the bark of a tree can weaken the branches or trunk, making the tree dangerous, especially during storms, heavy rain, and wind.

Few or no healthy leaves remaining

If the problematic tree is deciduous (one that sheds its leaves every year), then monitor the growth of the new leaves in the spring or growing season. Take note if there are branches and areas where there are few or no lush green leaves or where there are only brittle and brown leaves.

An unhealthy deciduous tree may also still have the old and dear leaves clinging to its branches during the winter, instead of them dropping to the ground in the fall.

If you have coniferous evergreen trees, examine them for any branches and areas where the leaves or needles turn brown, red, or yellow. This can be a sign of a health problem or of a dying tree too.

Dry and dead wood

While having one or a few dry and dead branches doesn’t necessarily mean that the tree is dying, if you notice that there is an abundance of dead wood and branches, this could be a sign that the tree is sick or is drying.

Dead branches can fall and hurt someone or cause damage at any time, so this matter needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Experts recommend that the trees are pruned on a regular basis during the dormant season to help keep them healthy and make them stronger.

There are critters or fungi in the tree

Certain pests like carpenter ants or bark beetles choose sick and stressed trees as their residence, so if you find that your tree is infested by such critters, this can be a sign of a sick or dying tree.

Fungal and bacterial infections on a tree can also be a sign that it is weak, dead, or dying. Such infections cause the appearance of depressed and discolored cankers on the bark of the tree. Other signs of a fungal infection are mushrooms growing on the tree or on its base.

Bacterial, fungal, and pest infestations are usually signs that the tree is decaying, which can lead to structural problems and risks in the future.

There are signs of damage to the roots

Determining whether the roots of the tree are well is not as easy as spotting other signs of a dying tree as the roots grow underground.

But if you happen to dig the ground for a construction or other project near the tree, which leads to a deterioration of the tree’s health, this may mean that the roots have been damaged during the excavations.

Also, look for any exposed or shallow roots and other changes in the tree’s root system. Usually, when the roots of a tree are damaged, this can lead to a hindered growth, thin foliage, smaller and yellow leaves, wilted and brown leaves in the spring or the growing season, dead branches, and other signs that the tree is sick or dying.

The tree develops a gradual or sudden lean

A tree that starts leaning to one side may be suffering from an illness causing structural imbalance and weakness. Trees that start leaning at more than 15 degrees may be showing signs of root or wind damage.

Unfortunately, larger trees that are tipped by strong winds rarely can recover and will most often die.

The scratch test fails

One of the easiest ways to determine whether a tree is dead or still alive is to perform the so-called scratch test. You can use a knife or even your fingernail to remove a small strip of the bark of the tree. If the tree is alive, the wood under the bark will be green. If the tree is dead, the wood under it will be dry and brown.

You may want to perform the scratch test on several parts of the tree to see whether you are dealing with a completely dead tree or only with damaged parts of it, which means that the tree may be salvaged.

Is it possible to save a tree that is dying?

It may be possible to save a sick tree, but you will need a tree surgeon (arborist). A professional tree surgeon should be able to determine whether the tree can be saved or whether it needs to be removed as soon as possible to prevent falling and accidents.

In some cases, an arborist may be able to diagnose and successfully treat a sick tree when timely measures are taken.

This is why it is advisable to contact a nearby tree surgeon as soon as you notice worrying signs that your tree may be sick or dying.

With regular pruning, pest, and disease treatment, as well as timely resolving of structural issues, you can ensure that your trees remain healthy and well for longer.

What to do if the tree is beyond saving?

A dying or dead tree can be dangerous, so you should contact an experienced arborist for advice as soon as possible. A tree that has been damaged by wind, storms, weather conditions, diseases, pests, or others can become structurally unstable and can cause the sudden breaking off and falling off of branches or even of the entire tree. Needless to say, this is quite dangerous for the people, animals, cars, and structures under and near it.

So, it is recommended to seek the advice of a tree surgeon if you are worried that a tree on your property or near you is dead or is dying as soon as you can.


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