How to Tell If Your Tree is Dead or Diseased?

dead tree

Although grass garners most of a homeowner’s attention, we must not forget that trees require some TLC as well. Trees provide both beautiful aesthetics and valuable shade to our landscapes.

Besides proper tree care and maintenance, one of the best things you can do for your tree is to monitor it season after season. When you know your trees’ normal behavior, it will be obvious to you when your trees exhibit signs of stress and poor health.

The sooner you discover a problem with the tree, the better your chances of saving it. However, it’s not always clear whether a tree is sick, dying, or dead. If you’re concerned that your tree is in peril, we’ve compiled a list of signs that something may be wrong with your tree.

Never ignore the warning signs that your tree is in trouble.

Not only could your tree die, but it could become a risk to your home and family.

Signs there may be something wrong with your tree.

Trees are remarkably capable of expressing how they feel. When they’re healthy, they flourish. When they feel ill, they display certain symptoms to show us that something is wrong. Learning to read the signs that trees exhibit helps us understand what trees are trying to communicate.

Unfortunately, correctly diagnosing tree ailments requires quite a bit of knowledge and experience. However, by learning what signs to look for in our trees, homeowners can be aware of an unhealthy tree that could damage or harm.

If you notice your tree is showing a few of these symptoms, it's best to have a lawn care professional or an arborist examine the tree. This ensures that your tree's distress can be correctly diagnosed, tested, and treated if possible.

It’s worth mentioning that if your tree shows just one symptom of stress, it does not necessarily mean that your tree is dead or dying. Trees are not always constant, and certain environmental factors can cause a tree to show one sign of stress.

For example, in times of drought, your tree’s growth and foliage production may slow down as the tree tries to save energy and retain water.

Below is a list of 6 signs that your tree may be diseased, decaying, dying, or dead. If your tree displays multiple symptoms on this list, you should contact a tree specialist for assistance.

1. Bark abnormalities

Missing bark.

When a tree is dying, bark will become very loose and begin to fall off the tree. You can spot this issue by looking for areas of smooth wood where the bark has fallen off. In a healthy tree, new bark would grow to replace the fallen bark. New bark growth won’t occur in dying trees.

Vertical cracks on the trunk.

Inspect your tree for gaping splits that may extend deep into the wood. If you notice any splits, vertical cracks, or deep holes on your tree, then it may be a sign your tree is dying. A healthy tree can heal small cracks on its own, but large wounds weaken your tree.

This makes it more likely that a branch could fall and potentially injure someone. This is especially dangerous if the crack or split affects more than half of your tree. The tree will likely need to be removed in such a case.

2. Lack of foliage

Lack of foliage is one of the most common ways for your tree to show it’s under stress. There can be many reasons that your tree only has a small number of healthy leaves left. 

One very common reason for a slow down in foliage growth is drought stress. If your tree has no healthy leaves during a growing season, you should have a professional inspect it.

3. An abundance of dead wood and branches

A couple of dead branches or dead wood doesn’t necessarily mean you have a dying tree. However, an increased prevalence of dead wood can indicate that it is a sick or dying tree. Typically trees decay from the inside out, so the presence of rotting wood can be a huge red flag.

Check your tree for decaying wood, which is soft wood that crumbles. You should also inspect your tree for dead branches. Branches that are dead will appear dry and break easily. Dead branches should always be removed for safety.

4. Leaning trunk

If a tree is leaning or crooked, it could be an odd growth pattern or a sign of damage. If the lean came on gradually or the tree simply grew uneven, it generally isn’t a big deal. However, odd growth patterns can lead to weakness and imbalance.

If your tree suddenly develops a leans, it could be a sign of severe damage and be at risk of falling. Trees that stand at a lean of more than 15 degrees could indicate wind or root damage.

If the entire trunk is leaning 30 degrees or more off-center, the tree will most likely need to be removed. Large trees that have tipped in intense winds don’t often recover.

5. Abnormal leaf behavior

Early leaf drop.

There are a few reasons that your tree is losing leaves prematurely. It could be a stress issue related to too much heat or a lack of water. However, this could also be a sign that your tree has pests invading it or a disease.

Dead leaves clinging through winter.

In most healthy trees, leaves will die and fall early on in wintertime. There can be a few reasons that dead leaves are clinging well into the winter. It could be a sign of environmental stress due to temperature changes causing mixed signals in the leaves. Dead leaves may linger if there was a sudden drop of temperature early on in the season.

Or they could remain if it was a warmer than average fall. However, if temperatures were normal in your area, then dead leaves clinging through winter could be a sign of pests or disease in your tree.

Leaf discoloration.

Leaves should be relatively constant in their color changes over the years. If you are unsure of what colors your leaves should be through the seasons, perform an internet search on your tree type for answers. Discolored leaves can be a sign of disease or stress.

One reason for leaf discoloration could be overexposure to heat or sun. This causes leaves to look sunburnt or brown in the summertime, called “leaf scorch.” Alternatively, if leaves turn spotted or brown after a rainy season, you may have a tree fungus issue.

Leaf discoloration is also common in drought stress situations. If your leaves wilt or yellow after a drought, you may need to water your tree to revive it. Another sign your tree is stressed is if the leaves change color too early in the season while all other trees are still green.

6. Pests and fungus

Fungus growing at the base of the tree.

Mushrooms or fungus growing on trees are a sign of decay.  Some mushrooms are beneficial to trees, while others can be dangerous. Such harmful fungi on trees are indications of rot in the roots or trunk. As decay spreads further within the tree, structural problems occur.

Pests will often make a home in dying trees.

Pests such as termites and carpenter ants live in trees under stress, decaying, or dying. Look for obvious signs like branches riddled with holes from wood-boring pests.

Many pests prefer to live in dead, weakened, or dying hosts, so if you notice pest activity, it is a sign your tree is dying. Insect pressures can often weaken or kill a tree. 

How to tell if your tree is dead.

Should your tree display multiple unhealthy symptoms, it is a strong indicator that something is seriously wrong with your tree. Dead trees usually have a combination of visible signs.

For example, it’s not just peeling bark, but maybe there also haven’t been any green leaves for a full growing season, or maybe there’s fungus growth near the roots.

When a few unhealthy tree symptoms are combined, you likely have a dead tree.

Well, if you were hoping there might be a simple test to check if your tree is dead…then you’re in luck! To find out if your tree is dead, you can try the “scratch test.” Use your finger or a tool to scratch the trunk or one of the tree’s twigs. Right beneath the dry, outer layer of bark is the cambium layer. If the tree is still alive, it will be moist and green. In a dead or dying tree, it is brown and dried out.

If you discover a brown and brittle cambium layer, then you have cause for concern. You should next complete an overall inspection of your tree. Try the scratch test on a few more areas to check for signs of green life under the bark.

Next, look around your tree and look for the symptoms on our “signs that there may be something wrong with your tree” list above.

If your tree failed the scratch test and you find symptoms of poor health, call a lawn care professional or an arborist as soon as possible.

Should you remove your tree?

When deciding whether it is time to remove a tree, it’s crucial to know the difference between a dead and a sick tree. If your tree is sick or dying, you may still be able to save it with the help of an arborist or professional local lawn care company. They can identify the problem and give your tree a far better chance of survival.

No one wants to tear down a tree, but, sadly, sometimes there is just nothing we can do to save them once they’re severely sick or dead. If your tree is dead, it can pose a serious risk to your home and family. Once your tree fails the scratch test and shows death symptoms, it is time to contact a professional to have it removed.

Dead trees and branches can fall at any time. This can potentially be a serious danger to you and your home. Sadly, dozens of people die every year from falling trees or branches. Although homeowners bear the responsibility of recognizing and removing dead trees on their property, you should not attempt to remove a tree on your own. Always contact a professional.

Tree and Shrub Care with Gecko Green

Our specialists treat your yard like it’s their own, so you can be sure that your trees are receiving the best care possible every season. Our tree and shrub care services will relieve you of the burden and responsibility it takes for proper maintenance and upkeep.

Our tree and shrub care program includes deep root fertilization, insect and disease control and prevention, dormant oil application, and more!

Our tree & shrub care plan will revitalize your landscape & ensure it adds beauty to your yard every season.

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