How to Tell if a Tree is Dead: Signs and Symptoms

Sadly, trees die. Whether as a result of pests, disease, climate change, or (more rarely these days) old age, the majority of trees have a limited lifespan.

But as whether or not a tree is still alive may not be immediately obvious, I’ve compiled a sort of checklist that might help you if you’re wondering how to tell if a tree is dead.

Of course, as with most tree facts, there are caveats, and I’ll cover those at the bottom.

While dead trees can be beautiful — some people turn them into sculptures or other works of art — and they form an invaluable habitat for wildlife, sometimes they can become hazardous to buildings or the public. In these cases, they need to removed by a qualified arborist.

It may also be the case that a tree has died from disease, in which case it might pose a danger to other trees nearby.

While an arborist will usually be able to tell you if your tree is still living or if it’s died, you may want to know before you pick up the phone.

Looking for Signs a Tree is Dead

The first step to take if you’re worried that a tree might have died is to look at it. I realize that it may be its appearance that led you to believe it was dead in the first place — maybe it has some dead branches, brown leaves at the wrong time of year, or it’s losing leaves altogether — but I mean that you should really look at it.

Look at it from all angles, all sides. Look at bark, leaves, and branches.

Leaves and Needles

If the tree is losing leaves or the leaves are turning brown and it’s not autumn or late summer, think about the weather. Has it been very dry lately? Drought can severely stress trees, but it may not kill them.

Evergreen trees keep their leaves or needles all year round, but even they shed old foliage. A few brown leaves on an evergreen leafy tree or a few brown needles on a conifer are probably fine. Bear in mind also that conifers tend to shed old needles from closest to the trunk first, but if you see a conifer with lots of brown needles on the tips of its branches, or all of its needles are brown, it may well be dead or dying.

Winter brown needles and pine cone
Photo by Manfred Richter at Pixabay

Branches

If a tree has a few dead branches, that’s probably ok; trees do shed branches from time to time. A lot of dead branches might be more serious though. If there are multiple dead branches, i.e., branches with no leaves or buds when the rest of the tree has either / both, look further down. If the dead branches are all on one side, perhaps something has happened to that part of the tree.

In winter, it can be a little more difficult to tell. Some experts advise you to look for buds, but all they will tell you is that the tree was alive when it set out its buds. I’ve had trees look quite dead during winter that have burst back into life in the spring. Very late in the spring in one case, so late that we were getting quite worried, but eventually, leaves did appear. (It’s an apple tree and had been a little traumatized by an international move.)

Bark

If a tree with non-peeling bark under normal circumstances is suddenly peeling, that would indicate a problem. Likewise, “bleeding” or dark wet patches on the bark not caused by rain can indicate illness, injury, or impending death. If the bark seems very flaky or rotten in lots of places, again that points to the tree’s decline.

Investigate and observe how the tree looks overall and you’ll get a first sense of what’s really going on.

Do the Branches Bend or Break?

Broken branch on living tree
Photo by gmm at Pixabay

If you’re wondering whether a smaller branch is dead or alive, you could try flexing or bending it very gently with your fingers. If the branch or twig bends, it’s alive. If it snaps, it’s probably dead. This does depend on the amount of strength that you use to conduct your test; the twig in the photo is very much alive. Remember that trees are living beings!

While the health of one branch won’t tell you whether the tree is dead or alive, it can give you an indication that something might be wrong, or not, as the case may be. But remember: the older and bigger the tree, the more likely it is that it’ll have some dead small branches and twigs but still be in perfect health itself.

This even applies with young trees, so use how bendy a tree’s branches are in combination with other detection methods. A few snapping branches probably don’t equal a dead tree.

Is it Green or Brown Under the Bark?

Experts recommend that you do a small “scratch test” to determine the status of a particular branch or the trunk of the tree. This involves using your fingernail or (very carefully) a small penknife to scrape away the outermost layer of bark to reveal the cambium layer.

If the tissue in the cambium layer is green, the tree is alive. If, however, the cambium tissue is brown, the tree is almost certainly dead. Caution must be taken with the scratch test, and remember that you are causing the tree a wound that it will need to repair. Scratch off as little as possible, and make sure that your fingers or tool are clean.

As it’s quite possible to find a dead branch, even a dead large branch, on a living tree, using the tree’s trunk for a scratch test will yield more reliable results than just using a branch. The scratch test is one of the most successful methods to help you determine if a tree has died.

What Does the Trunk Look Like?

Remember, hollow trunks do not necessarily mean dead trees! Olive trees naturally hollow out as they age, and they can live for thousands of years. Oak trees may also become hollow but continue to live for centuries, as can cherry trees and many other types of tree.

However, if a trunk is rotten in many places or all the way around, that points to the tree dying or having died. The mere presence of fungi might not necessarily indicate a tree’s death, but a proliferation of fungi might.

Green fungi growing on a tree trunk
Photo by Lieselot. Dalle at Unsplash

Consider the Roots

If there has been a great disturbance to a tree’s roots, possibly from construction or digging, the tree might have died. However, it’s important to realize that trees can sometimes recover from trauma. The Jindai Zakura, the oldest cherry tree in Japan and maybe in the world, was ailing due to the soil around its roots being compacted by all of the visitors who came to admire it.

The head priest of the Jisso-ji Temple where the tree is located worked with a team of arborists and gardeners to protect the trees roots and give it fresh soil, rich in nutrients. So far, their efforts seem to be working as the Jindai Zakura has since grown new branches and roots.

Consider That It Might Not be Dead

Just because a tree looks dead doesn’t mean that it is. Fallen trees are a great example of this. If a tree uproots in a place where it’s safe to leave it, leave it. It’s not at all unusual for trees to carry on growing on the ground. As long as not all of their roots have been pulled up, they can grow new ones and continue to have a long life.

The fallen trunk will remain on the ground, but new branches will grow out of it at a 90° angle, perpendicular, so that they can grow up like trunks of their own. Having spent a lot of time living near rivers, I’ve seen this phenomenon often.

As the soil on riverbanks and in riparian buffer zones is often more moist than that in fields, trees find it easier to reroot and carry on. The most recent example I saw was an enormous tree in the ash family. It must have fallen some decades ago, as all of its now perfectly-upright branches were fine young trees in themselves.

And possibly taking the prize for looking dead but not being dead is a centuries-old beech tree stump in Germany. Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, discovered (via the scratch test) that it was still alive even though it had no branches or leaves. His conclusion: it was being kept alive by the other trees in the forest, like a family member or friend. Trees truly are amazing.

Or Maybe It is

Wax Palms in Colombia
Photo by Fernando Arteaga at Pixabay

Palm trees, which are technically not trees at all but which people think of as trees so I’ll go with that here, can be notoriously difficult to assess. They can grow very slowly especially in climates that are at the edge of their tolerance levels, and might not put out new leaves or fronds for months.

A palm tree might also be dead, or irreversibly dying, long before it shows any signs of decay. This is sadly the case with too many of Columbia’s endangered Quindío wax palms (Ceroxylon quindiuense).

If you have a palm tree and are worried about its health because it isn’t growing, try this tip:

Each palm stem generally has a “growing point”: the meristem. If you can access this growing point (i.e., it isn’t tens of feet up in the air), draw a line with a permanent marker across a mature spear and a new, emerging spear.

Check back every few days, and if in days or weeks, the line on the new spear has moved, even a tiny bit, the tree is alive. If, however, the line hasn’t moved, the tree — even it is still looks healthy — is probably dead. Again, don’t do anything hasty and always ask for professional advice, but at least you’ll be able to give the arborist a bit more information.

(And if you happen to live in Florida or Texas or anywhere else and fear your tree might be suffering from Texas Phoenix palm decline (TPPD), or lethal bronzing, get in touch with a qualified arborist as soon as possible!)

As Always, Consult the Experts

Heron perched on dead tree
Photo by Manish Tulaskar at Unsplash

The methods outlined above will give you some tools to use if you need to check on the vitality of a tree yourself. But if you aren’t 100% sure that a tree is dead, it’s always better to enlist the help of an arborist or forester before you try to remove the tree as it might still be alive.

And in the case of any dangerous or difficult tree removal, or where pests and diseases are involved, ask the experts. But if there’s no hazard or risk, they may even tell you to leave your dead tree where it is and let it be a home for whoever wants to find it!

Featured Image by Pete Alexopoulos at Unsplash

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