How to Tell If a Tree Is Dead (and What to Do About It)

Lauren David
Written by Lauren David
Reviewed by Tara Dudley
Updated January 27, 2022
Parents Pushing Children On Tire Swing
Photo: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock

It’s not always easy to know if your tree is sick, dying, or already dead—but there are signs of life to check for

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Trees provide shade and beauty for your home. But a tree that is weak, dying, or even dead may not show any signs that something’s wrong. This would be fine if it wasn’t at risk of falling over and posing a major safety hazard.

But monitoring tree health can help you detect any symptoms of sickness or death. Here’s how to give your tree a checkup.

1. Look at the Leaves

A healthy tree will have lots of leaves, giving your yard the perfect shady spot for reading or sipping cocktails. If it’s a deciduous tree, meaning it sheds its leaves every winter, signs of suffering vary with the season.

“Check the leaves during the summer, when they should be lush and green; if you spot any that are brittle or brown, this could be a sign of a problem,” says Tara Dudley, owner of Plant Life Designs. “Be sure to keep an eye out for yellowing leaves, too; they may also be a sign of potential problems.”

With coniferous evergreen trees, the needles or foilage are usually green throughout the year. But if you notice your tree is turning brown at the tips or has yellow or red hues, these can be clues that the tree is stressed or dying.

2. Check the Branches

A healthy tree will have the occasional dead branch or twig, but when there are numerous large, lifeless branches, it’s time to investigate. 

A quick and easy test: Grab a twig and bend it between your fingers. If the limb is flexible and bends, all is well. But if the twig easily snaps, you can suspect it’s dead. But before you immediately assume the entire tree is dead, do this test on a few different areas of the tree.

3. Do a Bark Test

Scratch the bark or branches with your fingernails or a knife. Healthy bark will be moist and green inside. If it’s brittle and brown throughout, your tree is in trouble.

Just like with the branch check, do this over various parts of the tree before determining whether or not it’s truly dead.

4. Inspect the Trunk

Big tree trunk
Photo: Fajrul Islam / Moment / Getty Images

If you notice vertical cracks running along the trunk, it can be a sign that something is amiss or that the tree is suffering from damage. Another telltale sign: sections of the trunk that are missing bark completely. Winter weather can also cause cracking in tree trunks, which can be hard to prevent but can be harmful to the tree in the long term.

5. Find Fungus and Mushrooms

A dead or dying tree can be a haven for fungi, which thrives off of dead wood. Mushrooms growing at the base of the tree could be eating away at the roots, while fungi on the trunk can be an indicator that the tree’s insides are rotting (or already rotted).

6. Check the Roots

Trees have deep underground root systems, so it can be difficult to immediately notice if there’s a problem. A myriad of issues can stem from the roots, including the aforementioned brown and wilted leaves, dead branches, and lack of foliage.  

Shallow or exposed roots can easily be damaged by construction, excavation, or even a heavy storm. Check to see if there are small sprouts popping out from the base of the trunk, as this could be a telltale sign something’s wrong—or even a sign your tree is dying.

“Other issues affecting the tree caused by the roots could be from planting,” says Tara Dudley. “If the tree was planted too deep initially, the roots could also be girdling the trunk of the tree causing it to decline slowly.”

7. Take a Step Back

Green tree in front of house
Photo: nd700 / Adobe Stock

Take a few steps back to look at the whole tree. If you notice it’s leaning to one side, this could mean there’s a problem with the roots. 

A tree won’t be able to stay upright if the roots are weakened or damaged. Also, check to see if the roots are separating from the ground, as this is another symptom that the tree isn’t stable.

What to Do If Your Tree Is Dead

If you’ve determined that your tree is a wooden corpse, it needs to be removed. Contact a tree removal professional near you to cut down your tree. A dead tree is dangerous, as it can fall over and cause damage to your home. It can also be a conduit for spreading diseases to healthy trees or turn into a home for termites. All in all, it’s best to address the problem ASAP.

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