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How To Tell If A Tree Is Dead

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

It’s late winter. In most places the landscape is still asleep, however it won’t be long before trees are covered in a haze of fresh green leaves. But maybe you have a tree that doesn’t leaf out with the others. You may wonder: is the tree dead or literally just a late bloomer?

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Every tree has its own schedule. Oak trees hold on to last year’s dead leaves rather than dropping them. They can appear lifeless through most of the spring, but they’ll leaf out once the weather is consistently warm. This is why it’s important to be sure a tree is either truly dead or past saving before deciding to remove it.

Trees that wait for warmer weather before leafing out include beech, sycamore, oaks, walnuts, elms, and ash trees.

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Trees that leaf out early include birches, hickories, maples, buckeyes, cherries and willows.

But if a tree that’s usually pushed out leaves right on schedule isn’t showing signs of life, there’s a reason. Wind, storms, snow, hurricanes or other natural disasters can send a tree to its demise. Road salt can take a toll, as can accidents, such as a car or other object striking a tree.

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It can take years, but repeated hits to the bark and surface roots by lawn mowers and weed whackers, or overuse of chemicals (even if not directly applied to the tree) can cause a decline that’s almost unnoticeable until it’s too late.

Insect and diseases don’t kill healthy, robust trees: they finish off a tree that is already under stress.

And don’t underestimate the effects of drought. A tree may be alive going into fall, but the cumulative effects of summer drought and winter weather finish it off.

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However, just because a tree looks like a goner doesn’t mean it is. There may be life in those seemingly dead branches. Here’s how to tell: If you can reach, snap a twig or two. If they snap right off and the inner part of the twig looks tan or brown and dry, that branch is most likely dead.

But if the twig bends instead of breaks, it may be alive. Scratch the bark away on the twig with your fingernail. If you see green wood underneath and the wood seems moist, there’s life left.

When the weather warms and plants are greening up, take a walk around your landscape and examine the trees. Look for emerging leaves on all the branches. Some branches with leaves and others without indicate that a tree is in trouble.

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Check the base of the tree for heaving or exposed roots where there weren’t any before. Lots of mushrooms growing on the trunk or at the base of a tree can signal that a tree is rotting inside.

Examine the tree’s bark to be sure it’s intact, with no cracks, splits, holes or soft spots. Look into the canopy at the branch structure, checking for broken or dead branches, branches rubbing against each other, or anything that looks out of the ordinary.

Still not sure whether your tree is alive? Unless there’s a reason to believe it’s an immediate hazard, the most prudent thing to do is wait until summer and see what happens. A consultation with an arborist would then be the next step.


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