9 Signs Your Tree Is Dying (2022)

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Why You Need an Arborist

If you’re having trouble with your trees or woody shrubs, the first call you should make is to an arborist.

A certified arborist has specialty education in trees and the latest information on how to plant, care for, diagnose, treat and remove trees. They also have access to critical safety gear and powerful tools, plus the license to apply certain chemicals, such as fungicides, to help save a tree.

Trees can be stoic. Many times when signs of distress show up, a problem has been brewing for a while. So while you can follow best practices for planting and maintaining the health of your trees, often major work — or at least specialized knowledge — is needed to prolong a tree’s life or stop the spread of a tree disease. Here are the signs to look for.

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Dieback

When an arborist consults about your tree, they do a top-to-bottom assessment, so you might as well, too.

Start with the top of the tree, known as the crown. Are leafless branches sticking out of the leaf canopy? That’s called dieback, says Lou Meyer, arborist with The Davey Tree Expert Company. “(It’s) almost a sure sign that there’s a root issue underground,” he says.

Those issues vary. Experienced arborists can tell you if it’s root compaction, a fungus or poor soil conditions. If so, there are few methods to try to save the tree. This is common with silver maples, he says, but can affect many species.

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Oozing Sap or Sawdust

If you see sap oozing down the trunk from specific holes that resemble knife wounds, there’s a good chance you have a borer insect problem. (Note: Some trees, such as elms, ooze sap normally; it’s not a sign of danger.)

You may be most familiar with the emerald ash borer, which lays its eggs in the tree, lives in the cambium (plant tissue), creates tunnels inside it and then essentially starves the tree. Almost all untreated ash trees with emerald ash borer infestations will die.

Because emerald ash borers can compromise the physical structure of the tree, a professional should handle the tree’s treatment or removal. And although emerald ash borers may be the most notorious, other insects can infest a tree that will leave oozing sap, sawdust or sawdust tubes in their wake.

“Any sawdust is a bad thing,” Meyer says. That’s a reason to call your arborist.

(Video) How to Spot the Warning Signs: Dead, Dying or Hazardous Trees

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Mushrooms or Fungus

If you see fungus on a tree trunk, there’s a good chance you have a decay issue. Fungus is most often muted tan in color, but can also be orange or red. “Saprophytes (a plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on dead or decaying organic matter) feed on decay and if you see them you’ll know there is inner decay on that branch,” Meyer says.

Sometimes arborists can expertly remove limbs with the hope the decay hasn’t spread, and/or use fungicides to slow the spread. There are some species that almost always have shelf fungi on the trunk, Meyer adds, such as locust trees. So don’t immediately panic, but do call your tree specialist.

Other fungi might not look like a traditional mushroom, and vary by species. Randy Nelson, a certified arborist with Monster Tree Service, says a fungus commonly appears on Colorado Blue Spruces planted outside their U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone. It shows up as black spots on the needles, or even as dieback.

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Sloughing Bark

Bark sloughing off the trunk is often a sign of decay, often from a fungus, Meyer says. Some species do naturally shed their bark, such a sycamore, crepe myrtle or river birch.

If you can see silvery or white plating under the bark — a sort of scale that looks like a dead lesion — that’s a sign of a canker disease called hypoxylon.

With hypoxylon, you may also see some sap oozing down the trunk. It’s nothing you can treat yourself, and often can’t be cured. But with assessment and treatment, you may keep the tree’s healthy parts going and extend the tree’s life.

(Video) Is my tree dying?

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Black Lesions

If a spring season is especially wet, black spots or lesions may appear on a tree’s leaves. “This is more of a fungus related to high moisture,” says Nelson.

Depending on the tree species and time of year, some systematic pruning to thin out the canopy and create more air movement may help. Also, sometimes chemicals can be helpful. “This is usually more of a cosmetic issue,” says Nelson, “but it can stress the tree out if it happens repeatedly.”

Your tree might not be doomed to certain death in this case, but care should be taken to keep it healthy and prolong its natural life.

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(Video) Are You Overwatering Your Plants? | 9 Telltale Signs

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Scorching, Browning or Drooping

People think lawn sprinkler systems are good enough for watering trees. Often, it’s not, Nelson says, especially in drought conditions. That water doesn’t reach tree roots, and if you have turf grassit competes for that water.

He suggests using black soaker hoses. If you don’t have one, put your garden hose on a small trickle and let it soak slowly for a full day. Place it a couple of feet out from the trunk but within the dripline of the tree (from the trunk to the outer edges of the trees branches), rotating evenly around the tree.

“Trees on average, need an inch of water per week,” Nelson says. “Sometimes trees don’t show scorching, browning or drooping leaves or branches immediately, but they show up next year or the year after that, especially on bigger trees.”

Smaller or younger trees may show stress signs within the same season. Trees and leaves can also droop when they’re overwatered, so keep a careful watch on which one may be causing the problem.

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Flagpole Trunk

If your tree trunk doesn’t flare where it meets the ground, so it looks like a telephone pole or a flagpole, your tree may have been improperly planted. That can cause issues like girdling roots that grow in a circular or spiral pattern around the trunk or at or below the soil line, gradually strangling the trunk. That considerably shorten the life of your tree.

“You want the root flare at the bottom just above grade so you can see that swelling at the base,” Nelson says. “If you catch it, arborists can excavate soil away and provide root pruning.”

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(Video) Problems with newly planted trees

Trunk Wounds or Cracks

Trees often take a beating. Think about that boulevard tree someone backed into trying to park, or the UPS truck repeatedly striking a branch as it makes deliveries down the street. “That’s an issue and an opportune entry place for disease,” says Meyer.

This is a particularly hot topic with deliveries during the pandemic: Limbs struck once a week now may get hit four to five times a day. That can cause structural damage, impair the tree and eventually imperil people and property if it comes loose.

Likewise, storms can deliver blows to an otherwise healthy tree. Big cracks in the trunk or bark are signs of structural damage that need to be addressed.

Lastly, horizontal cracks are a red flag as well. These indicate the wood fibers are breaking and cracking, and the tree might fall.

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Heaving Roots

Exposed roots can be a problem. While some species’ root systems hang out near the ground’s surface, Meyer says most aren’t that visible. Heaving roots can be a sign that the tree doesn’t have enough space to grow.

Signs of heaving soil, which Nelson says often happens after a heavy rain or dangerous weather, are also a reason to call an arborist. Sometimes smaller trees can be uprighted or staked, but an arborist can assess whether the tree is stable or needs to come down.

Originally Published: August 20, 2021

9 Signs Your Tree Is Dying (11)

Katie Dohman

(Video) 5 Things You Should Know When Someone is Actively Dying

Katie Dohman is an award-winning freelance writer who has written about home, design, and lifestyle topics for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured in Artful Living, Midwest Home, Star Tribune, and Teen Vogue, among many others. She is currently living her own how-to story as she and her husband work through a complete gut remodel on their 1921 home—while parenting three tiny tots and dodging their dog and cat, who always seem to be underfoot.

FAQs

What does a tree look like when it is dying? ›

One sure sign is a lack of leaves or a reduction in the number of leaves produced on all or part of the tree. Other signs of a sick tree include the bark becoming brittle and falling off the tree, the limbs dying and falling off, or the trunk becoming spongy or brittle.

What are the signs that the tree is still alive? ›

One of the best ways to determine if a tree or any plant is dead is the tree scratch test. Just beneath the dry, outer layer of bark in a tree's trunk lies the cambium layer of bark. In a living tree, this is green; in a dead tree, it is brown and dry.

Can a dying tree still have leaves? ›

There are few healthy leaves left.

They will also have dead leaves still clinging well into the winter instead of dropping to the ground. Coniferous evergreens will start to show red, brown or yellow needles or leaves when it's stressed or dying.

When should you cut trees down? ›

As a general rule, if a tree is pruned before the spring growth flush, the tree's growth will be maximised and the wounds will close faster – therefore pruning in late autumn or winter is best, when the tree is dormant.

Should I cut off dead tree branches? ›

Diseased, dead and broken branches should be removed right away. Pruning for shape isn't necessary until the first winter after planting.

Should dead trees be cut down? ›

If your tree is dead or clearly dying, it's a good idea to remove it. A dead tree is not just an eyesore, it's a hazard (particularly in dense urban or suburban neighborhoods). We recommend having it cut down as soon as possible, especially if it's near buildings or areas where people gather, walk, or drive.

How do you save a stressed tree? ›

For new transplants, root damaged trees or plants growing in sandy soil, water should be provided at least twice a week. Water should be concentrated on the root ball of new plantings. On established plantings in clay or loam soils, the recommended quantity of water should be supplied at least once each week.

What is a scratch test on a tree? ›

How to Do a Scratch Test on Trees & Plants - YouTube

How do I know if my tree is healthy? ›

A healthy tree will boast plenty of new leaves or buds, have a normal leaf size, and show signs of twig growth, among others. In fact, you can check a tree's condition by removing a small twig from a branch, breaking it open, and checking the color inside.

How likely is it for a tree to fall on your house? ›

12% in any one year. Yup, a 12% chance of that branch falling. Now we need to do a couple things. One is figure out how much of it is overhanging your home / car / shed.

What happens when a tree dies? ›

It can take up to 100 years or more for wood to decompose, depending on the species and forest type. When a tree dies naturally or falls due to extreme weather events, new life springs forward. Fungi communities flourish on dead wood, salamanders create breeding grounds, and saplings grow on the nutrient-rich bark.

How long do trees live with heart rot? ›

Decay should limit the cutting age of balsam fir to about 70 years. Most of the oaks will pass 150 years without major decay losses but decay cull usually results in the seri- ous break-up of scarlet oak stands over 80 years old. In the West, the thrifty, uninjured young forest trees are generally free from heart rots.

Do trees come back to life? ›

Identifying whether a tree is dead or living can sometimes be a very tricky task – especially in the winter time when every tree can look dead. While it is possible, yet sometimes difficult, to revive some sick or dying trees it is impossible to bring a dead tree back to life.

What fertilizer is best for trees? ›

As a result, trees usually respond best to fertilizer with a 2-1-1 or a 3-1-1 ratio (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium). Commonly available fertilizers with a 2-1-1 or similar ratio are 18-6-12, 12-6-6, 10-6-4, 10-8-6 and 10-8-4.

Can you save a tree with no leaves? ›

Healthy trees that have lost less than half of their leaves will usually survive. Healthy trees losing more than half the leaves can survive defoliation 2-3 years in a row. If trees are stressed by drought or excessive heat from city pavement or poor site conditions they are less likely to survive repeated defoliation.

What does it mean if a tree has no leaves? ›

If your tree has buds, but no leaves, there's likely a good reason the buds remain cooped up. For example: The tree is a late-bloomer and won't produce leaves until summer. Some plants hold off on blooming, just in case temperatures drastically drop.

Do trees recover from disease? ›

A completely disease-free tree is rare because of the many microscopic organisms that live on trees -- in the bark and in the root tissue. But trees are tough and usually can co-exist with the pathogens. But sometimes tree disease can take hold in such a way that doesn't allow for recovery.

What is the best month to cut down a tree? ›

Generally, the best time to prune or trim trees and shrubs is during the winter months. From November through March, most trees are dormant which makes it the ideal time for the following reasons: Trees are less susceptible to insects or disease.

Why trees must be cut down? ›

Removing one older tree often allows several smaller, younger ones to flourish. Younger trees also absorb more nitrogen than older trees, which helps clean an ecosystem's air and water. Cutting down older trees also creates room for planting new saplings.

What are 3 key branches to remove? ›

The following are a few of the common things you should prune from trees and shrubs:
  • Dead, Dying, Broken, or Diseased Branches: Any branches or stems that are dead, dying, diseased, or broken should be pruned. ...
  • Branches that Cross or Grow Inward or Downward: ...
  • Suckers and Water Sprouts:

Can a dead branch come back to life? ›

Dormant branches are simply resting temporarily before they spring to life again, but dead branches cannot revive themselves.

How much of a tree can you cut without killing it? ›

Depending on its size, age, and condition, no more than 5% to 20% of a tree's crown should be removed at one time. The main reason for this is to avoid the tree's stress response of producing lots of suckering branches that are weak and may develop in the wrong places in a tree's crown or along its trunk.

How long can a tree live for? ›

Trees can live anywhere from less than 100 years to more than a few thousand years depending on the species. However, one species in particular outlives them all. The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) has been deemed the oldest tree in existence, reaching an age of over 5,000 years old.

Do birds nest in dead trees? ›

Let's find out why. Birds and animals depend on snags for shelter, nests, or perches. Holes are great places to live. Many birds and animals use holes in dead trees.

Can a dead tree be revived? ›

But can a dead tree be revived, as in a fully dead tree? Sometimes you can do your best and experience new leaf and branch growth starting lower near the base, spawning off of new roots or a revived root system. But in general, no, you won't revive the entirety of the tree.

Should you cut dead branches off trees? ›

There is never a bad time to remove dead, damaged or diseased branches. But most trees benefit from pruning in mid to late winter. Pruning during dormancy encourages new growth as soon as the weather begins to warm. The lack of leaves after autumn allows you to easily identify branches and limbs requiring removal.

What does fungus look like on a tree? ›

Fungus, like most tree diseases, will show itself in one of just a few ways. You may see abnormal growth, discoloration, or wilting in the leaves or needles. You may see discoloration or growth (scabs) in the bark. You may see fungus growing on your tree.

What happens when a tree dies? ›

It can take up to 100 years or more for wood to decompose, depending on the species and forest type. When a tree dies naturally or falls due to extreme weather events, new life springs forward. Fungi communities flourish on dead wood, salamanders create breeding grounds, and saplings grow on the nutrient-rich bark.

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