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How To: Tell If a Tree is Dying

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a tree is dying. Dead trees are an easy spot, but what about one that is at risk of dying and a potential fall hazard?

Dead trees can pose a serious risk to you and your home, as they can easily be knocked over by strong winds. This, in turn, can easily cause damage if the tree falls on your home, or can cause serious injury if the tree falls on somebody.

As a homeowner it’s important to be able to spot a dying tree and either act to save it if it’s not too late or have it removed before it falls on its own. Once you’re able to recognize the signs that a tree is dying, you can act promptly.

These tips apply whether you are looking at big majestic oaks, evergreen trees like pines, or even fruit trees like one of my favorites the Harvester peach tree or my Florida native citrus trees.

In this article, I’ll familiarize you with some of the most common signs to tell if a tree is dying.

Sparse or Spotty Leaf Growth

The leaves on a tree are an easy way to determine the health of a tree. If a tree is full of leaves and continues to grow new leaves every season, it’s likely that the tree is healthy. But, if you notice that a tree has little to no leaves with no signs of new leaves forming, this may be a sign that the tree is dying.

We all know that deciduous trees lose all their leaves in the winter and clog our gutters, while evergreen trees do not. Don’t be alarmed if a tree loses its leaves within a short period of time during the fall or winter, it’s part of a natural cycle. If those leaves don’t come back or come back slower than the other trees of a similar species that is a definite warning sign.

Lots of Fungus and Pests

Fungus and some bugs can be another sign of a dying tree. Some types of fungus are known to feed on trees, destroying their structural integrity over time. A large number of bugs within the roots and trunk of the tree may also signal an unhealthy tree as well. 

misletoe on dying tree
Mistletoe growing on a dying tree

Don’t just think I’m talking about bugs as pests. There are also parasitic plants that cause health problems for many trees. Heavy amounts of Spanish moss, air plants, or mistletoe can mean an unhealthy tree that need help quickly before it becomes overwhelmed.

A Leaning Tree

Not every tree will be perfectly straight, and not every leaning tree is necessarily dead. Despite this, you should be alarmed by any trees that begin to lean more than usual.

A leaning tree may mean that it has begun to lose its trunk or root strength do to water logged roots or rot, This is especially common in Laurel Oaks which typically get rot in the crevices of trunks causing large ope cavities into the tree as it rots from the inside out.

Damaged trunk or roots

During construction in an area it’s not uncommon for the heavy machinery to cause noticeable damage to trunks and unseen damage to roots from driving over top of them.

Some roots may not be easy to see, as they’re underground, but you can also determine root damage by the health of leaves and other parts of the tree.

Peeling bark is another condition on the trunk that may signal a tree being in distress.

Dead Branches

A few dead branches on a tree are no big deal, but more dead branches every year is a clear way to tell if a tree is dying. Trees will begin pulling their resources back toward the trunk if they can’t support their vast network of branches and those resulting dead branches are a warning flag.

Perform a scratch test

If the physical signs of a dead tree aren’t apparent, you can always do a scratch test to determine the health of a tree. To do a scratch test, simply remove a very small piece of the bark with your fingernail or pocket knife.

If you notice that the layer underneath the tree is green-tinted or wet, this is a sign of a healthy tree. Dead tissue may look brown, dry, and generally unhealthy.

Fee free to check a couple different spots on the tree if you are still unsure, but avoid doing too much damage.

A healthy tree is a true joy. They provide shade, home for birds and other animals and generally make your house a nicer place to live. If you’re concerned about your trees now you know how to tell if a tree is dying and you can have a chance to save them.

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1 thought on “How To: Tell If a Tree is Dying

  1. Hey Scott! One of the things we did was ask our county’s Forest Ranger to come out. We have a lot of trees. He actually took a flat head screwdriver to one of the old oaks in the front yard and was able to drive it through the bark to the handle! That tree came down immediately. It is a free service. They had also come out to our old home which didn’t have so many trees, maybe a dozen or less, giving great advice on trimming so water doesn’t collect and damage the trunk.

    Best regards,

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