Is my tree dead?

We were brainstorming ideas for blog posts last year based on common customer questions. While many questions can be answered broadly in a blog post like this, others are highly specific to a place and time. Today's question, "Is my tree dead?" falls at the intersection of the two types of questions. To assess any individual tree it would be most helpful to see it in person, but there are three helpful tricks to see if a tree is dead or just stressed or a species that is slow to come back in the spring. For each pair of images, the healthy twig is on the right and the dead twig is on the left. Click on any image to see it larger.

Check for Buds

The easiest way to check if a tree is alive is to check for living buds. There are little ridges on twigs called leaf scars where buds for leaves form. If no buds are on the twigs, that twig is dead. If you see little buds forming, but they are black and shriveled and fall off of the twig easily, then the twig may be dead. Or just the buds may be dead from a late freeze or other conditions. You'll need to move on to one of the other tests to see if your tree (or this part of the tree) is dead.

Bend a Twig

The next way you can test a twig to see if it's alive is by bending it. If a twig bends easily without snapping, the twig is likely still alive. Dead twigs are very brittle and prone to snapping. In fact, if a branch has been dead for long enough, you can often spot it from a distance because it won't have nearly as many smaller twigs and branches as a healthy tree since wind, animals, etc. will break off these brittle, dead twigs. If you still aren't convinced one way or another, there's another trick to see if the tree is dead.

Bark Scratch Test

Underneath the bark of a tree is a thin layer of plant tissue called phloem. This layer is responsible for moving sugars created in the leaves to the rest of the plant. If a twig is alive and well, you can scratch away the thin outer layer of young bark and see green, healthy phloem underneath. If the twig is dead, it will be brown underneath, and it may be difficult to scratch the bark away.

Just because one branch of a tree is dead doesn't mean the whole tree is dead. Make sure you check different parts of the tree to see how their twigs are doing. If the entire tree or most of it is dead, there's not a whole lot that can be done. If one branch or section is dead while the rest seems healthy your tree may recover just fine, but it's important to find out what caused the die-back and address the issue as quickly as possible. Even if a tree has living branches, if it has dropped its leaves mid-season or shows other signs that something is off, the tree may still need help. Contact an arborist or other tree-savvy friend or professional (we're always available for an opinion!) to see what they think about the health of your tree and what can be done to keep it happy.


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