Once a tree is dead, you can’t bring it back to life. But if it is dormant, it can always thrive again.

A tree is considered dead if it no longer shows any signs of biological activity. This means that it isn’t showing any signs that it can absorb nutrients, produce food, or grow. This is often signified by extensive rotting, growing fungus, insect infestations, dried-out branches, and a peeled-out bark.

Here is what you should know.

When Is a Tree Considered Dead

You will know that a tree is dead by doing any of the following.

Inspect for signs of life

The first way to tell whether your tree is dead or alive is to look for new growths. Inspect the tree for any new leaf buds or leaves. You should also look out for new branches, flowers, and shoots. And if you find any of them, that is a good sign that the tree is alive.

But just because you can’t see any signs of life doesn’t automatically mean that the tree is dead or dying. It may just be that it is dormant. This may be because it is distressed by disease or a pest infestation. It may also be due to extreme environmental conditions like extreme cold or drought.

Snap test it

A snap test is an easy way of telling whether a tree is dead.

For this test to work, you need to target a tree’s smaller branches. Try to bend these branches and twigs. If a significant portion of the branches or twigs snap, then your tree is already dead, or it is at least in the process of dying. But if they bend without breaking, then chances are that your tree is still alive.

Scratch test it

For an effective scratch test, you will need a small knife. If you are dealing with a small tree, your hand can also work.

To perform the test, scratch off a part of the tree’s bark. If your tree isn’t dead, you will see a green layer just under the bark.

But if you don’t see a green layer, then the tree is dead. The lack of a green layer under the back is a sign that the tree is incapable of supplying nutrients and food to other parts of the tree.

When conducting the scratch test, you should keep in mind that:

  • If you cut a big portion of the tree’s bark, you can cause a significant injury. You might even expose it to disease attacks and pest infestations. Therefore, making a small scratch is always advisable.
  • Sometimes, trees sacrifice some limbs or branches to protect themselves.

Therefore, a tree that is alive can have a few dead branches. Therefore, for reliable results, you need to perform the test on several branches. Performing it on the tree’s trunk is also recommended.

What are the signs of a dying tree?

What are the signs of a dying tree

If your tree starts showing any of the following signs, it is either dead or dying.

Brittle bark or no bark

A tree’s back plays an important role in its survival. It protects it from physical trauma, shields it from excessive loss of moisture, and serves as the first line of defense against diseases and pest attacks.

Therefore, if your tree has lost its bark, chances are that it is already dead. This also happens in cases where the bark is dried up and brittle.

Falling limbs

If a tree’s limbs are falling off, especially if they do so after drying out, chances are that the tree is dead or dying. It is an indication that the tree is no longer able to sustain itself and hence it is slowly shedding off its parts, starting with parts that are less critical to its survival.

No leaves or abnormal leaves

If a tree doesn’t spring back to life in spring or summer, chances are that it is either dead or dying. This is so especially if it usually develops foliage during these months.

If a tree’s leaves change color, it can be a sign that it is dying. If the leaves change to yellow, brown, or red, your tree is in trouble and it may be dying.

A dying tree can also develop thin leaves. It may have dead leaves still clinging on. And its leaves may also become abnormally brittle.

Growing fungus or mushrooms

The presence of fungus is a clear sign that a section of the tree that is affected, is dead. This is because a growing tree’s defenses are usually enough to discourage such growths. But if the tree is dead or dying, then it becomes susceptible to such attacks.

Therefore, if fungus or mushrooms are growing at the base of a tree, then the tree is likely dead. The same applies in cases where they grow on the main trunk of the tree.

Extensive decay and softness

Trees can easily fight off decay agents, bacteria, and diseases. When they start to get stressed, their ability to defend themselves diminishes.

This is often signified by decay and softness. But when these symptoms become extensive, then chances are that the tree is either dead or dying.

Leaning

A tree gets most of its structural support from its root system. If you notice that any of your trees are starting to lean, there is a good chance that their root system has been compromised.

Therefore, in the absence of any physical cause of the leaning, it is possible that the tree’s roots are dying. And given how crucial a tree’s root system is to its survival, this is something that will eventually lead to death.

Other signs that may signify that the tree’s roots are definitely to blame include:

  • browning leaves
  • extended wilting
  • a significant number of dead branches
  • undersized leaves
  • yellowing leaves
  • thinning foliage

Pest infestations

Insects and pests rarely make a home in a living tree. Therefore, if your tree is infested by pests like carpenter ants, termites, and bark beetles, chances are that it is dying.

However, it is important to keep in mind that just because a tree displays any of the above signs doesn’t mean that it can’t be saved. In most cases, these are just indications that something is wrong. And if you act immediately, you can actually save your tree.

Can you save a dying tree?

Yes, you can save a dying tree.

To save it, all you have to do is to alleviate any stress that the tree may be under. If the tree is diseased, treat it. If it is infested with pests, apply a pesticide.

You should also make it easier for it to recover by providing it with enough nutrients and water.

Can you save a dying tree

Identify and fix

A tree starts dying when it is under stress. The stress may stem from:

  • a pest attack
  • a tree disease
  • physical trauma like when it is over pruned or its root system is interfered with during construction
  • a lack of moisture
  • a lack of nutrients

Therefore, the first step in saving a dying tree is to identify the cause of the problem and then fix it. If you find it challenging, you can contact an arborist near you for help figuring out the right treatments or pesticides for your tree.

Fertilize

When you fertilize a dying tree, you provide it with the resources that it needs to fight off diseases, infections, and even infestations. Therefore, if you have a dying tree, providing it with the appropriate nutrients will boost its odds of survival simply because it will make it easier for it to defend itself.

With appropriate fertilization, you will also speed up the tree’s recovery process. This is because it ensures that the tree has enough building blocks for recovery.

Another way through which fertilization helps with resuscitating a dying tree is by easing the tree’s stress.

Trees use resources to find and absorb nutrients. By making these nutrients easy to access, you allow the tree to use all that it has to fight. This is something that definitely helps to increase the likelihood of survival.

Water

Water is essential to a tree’s survival. This is because it plays an essential role in every facet of a tree’s functions. It is integral to the food production process, moving the food around, new cell generation, and even absorption of nutrients.

Without enough water, a tree becomes stressed out. It can then be vulnerable to diseases, pests, and other destructive elements.

Making sure that your tree is sufficiently watered will make it more capable of defending itself. It will decrease the resources that it has to dedicate to finding moisture. And it may just be enough to bring it from the brink of death.

Prune

Pruning helps to keep most diseases from spreading. Even in cases where the tree is dying because of a pest infestation, removing the affected limbs will make it harder for the pest to completely kill the tree. And sometimes, all that a tree needs is a little time to shore up its defenses.

When you prune a dying tree, you improve the odds of its survival by reducing the burden that it has to bear. Cutting away diseased and dying branches allows it to conserve its food and energy. And with fewer parts to support, it can concentrate on getting better.

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FAQ’s

Yes, dead trees are dangerous.

They are dangerous because they can easily fall and injure someone. They can damage property. And if their death was due to a disease or pest infestation, they can encourage its spread. This can then lead to the death of nearby trees.

Ben McInerney
Author: Ben McInerney - Ben is a qualified arborist with 15 plus years of industry experience in Arboriculture. He ran a successful tree service before turning to writing and publishing. Ben is dedicated to providing users with the most accurate up-to-date information on everything trees.