How to Identify a Dead Tree in Your Yard

Deane Biermeier
Written by Deane Biermeier
Updated February 2, 2023
beautiful house surrounded by healthy  trees
Photo: / Adobe Stock


  • You can take some steps to help identify a dead or dying tree.

  • Sickly leaves or branches can be a sign of a dead or dying tree.

  • Not every sick tree is dead, so a pro can help you figure out how to handle it.

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Trees may be a staple of your yard, but they won’t last without proper care. Knowing how to tell if a tree is dying can give you time to take action before the situation becomes potentially dangerous. In some cases, you and an arborist may be able to save the tree. Below we’ll give you some tips to learn how to identify a dead tree and what you can do about it.

7 reasons trees die, including physical damage and air or soil pollution

1. Look at the Leaves

A tree’s leaves can often act as an early alarm system regarding its health. Deciduous tree leaves turn color and fall often every autumn. Evergreens lose their leaves or needles too. The process isn’t as noticeable because evergreens continuously replace the needles that fall. 

However, deciduous leaves turning color, wilting, or curling up before the fall season begins is likely a sign of trouble. When you notice leaves dying when they shouldn't, note how many leaves are changing and where. A few dead leaves on a broken branch aren’t cause for concern. If, on the other hand, you notice that several branches or a major limb are displaying the issue, it’s a good time to hire an arborist to have a closer look.

Evergreen tree leaves don’t give up their secrets quite as easily. To determine if your evergreen needs a check-up, look for needles turning brown and falling off at the ends of branches instead of near the trunk or lower part of the tree. Evergreen branches often lose leaves on lower limbs without replacing them as the tree matures, but these are only on low branches, and the process should only happen near the tree’s center. 

2. Test the Branches

If you suspect your tree is experiencing stress, you can confirm or deny your suspicion in one or more of three ways. 

  • Inspect the limbs to see if any bark is flaking or falling off. Keep an eye out for ants and other insects. If the branches look sick, they probably are.

  • Perform a scratch test on several small, young branches from various parts of the tree by scraping at the bark with a sharp object like a pocket knife. If the flesh directly under the bark is greenish in color, you’re likely looking at a healthy tree. You may have a sick tree if the flesh is dry, brown, gray, or brittle on many branches. 

  • Try snapping a small branch or twig in half and notice if it bends or breaks. Bendy branches are healthy ones, while several samples breaking may mean you’ll need further investigation to determine the tree's health.  

3. Inspect the Bark

Getting up close and personal with your tree can help show you some signs that it’s asking for help. You can identify a dying tree by seeing smooth patches of missing bark that don’t appear to be scarring over. Also, check your tree for long vertical cracks running up the side of the trunk or along large limbs. These cracks are signs of stress that can happen after an extreme wind event or significant weather pattern changes. 

While you’re there, look inside the cracks, crevices, and barkless areas, as well as around the rest of the tree, for holes from boring insects, or carpenter ants. You should also be on the lookout for evidence of fungi, such as mushrooms, or fibrous filament growth. Any of these situations warrant consulting an arborist to see if there’s still time to save the tree.

4. Diagnose Root Trouble

Though the roots of almost all trees remain hidden from view, they aren’t very good at hiding their secrets—especially when they’re facing trouble. Here are several ways to know that your tree’s roots are losing the battle.

  • A leaning tree is typically a sign of damage to its roots. The damage may be from high winds or rotting roots that can no longer provide enough support.

  • Fungus evidence around the tree or mushrooms sprouting up is often a sign of roots rotting and feeding the parasitic plants. 

  • Dead roots at ground level or in a shallow hole near the tree look similar to dry, dead branches. If you find one dead root, dig another small hole and check the condition of nearby ones.

  • Seeing yellowing, dying, and smaller-than-normal leaves during summertime when there seem to be no other culprits, such as drought, may mean the roots are failing.

5. Assess the Tree’s Condition

worker cutting down tree in front of home
Photo: nd700 / Adobe Stock

Often, we can’t see an entire tree from our living room window. Take a walk down the block from time to time and look at your large tree from a distance. If you see patches of dying or missing leaves or branches or notice a pronounced lean, it’s never too early to perform some follow-up work to get to the bottom of the situation. 

Can I Save a Dying Tree?

A dying tree isn’t necessarily a dead tree; keeping them alive means you can continue enjoying its benefits and even add to your property value as they mature. When you notice that your tree is asking for help, call a nearby tree arborist who can perhaps offer a solution to the problem, which just might save the tree from the chainsaw. 

Removing a Dead Tree

It’s a sad day when we have to say goodbye to a beloved tree. However, keeping a dead tree is dangerous for us, our neighbors, and our homes. While seasonal tree pruning and branch removal is a popular DIY project, taking down a crumbling tree is very different and is the work of professionals. 

Dead trees can drop branches or simply topple over unexpectedly and cause injury or expensive property damage. Often, your homeowners’ insurance will require that you remove a tree nearing the end of its life to continue coverage from the peril. 

Safe tree removal requires extensive training and special tools that aren’t readily available to homeowners. Contact your local tree service company that has the tools and experience to remove the tree quickly and, more importantly, safely.

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