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How to Know if a Tree is Dead: The Four Telltale Signs

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No matter how much care or attention you put into a gardening project, a few dead plants are inevitable. Death and rebirth are a natural part of a garden’s life, and while it might be a sad thing for a fully mature tree to die, it means that new life gets to flourish in its stead.

Spotting the signs of a dead or dying tree can be tough. Signs aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye, and can manifest all over the tree or only in certain sections. While a tree arborist is often necessary to spot symptoms and diagnose before removing your tree, learning the telltale and early warning signs can help expedite the process.

Getting a dead tree diagnosed and taken care of quickly not only saves time and prevents the final gasps of the tree draining resources from other plants, it also removes an environmental hazard. Trees are large, heavy objects, and a destabilised or rotting growth can potentially spell disaster if left unattended.

1. The simple scratch

This is by no means a foolproof method, but it’s a good first step in determining the health of a tree. Take a twig from one of the branches (or cut a shallow groove into the trunk if none are available or reachable) and scratch away at the surface until the underneath layer is exposed.

If the tree has a vibrant, green growth, it’s probably doing just fine. Verdant green is a sign of new growth extending to the outer twigs. A dead or dying tree shouldn’t be able to sustain this as resources are drawn inwardly (towards the trunk) in the process of dying. Unless the tree has died very recently, exposing green under the surface is a great sign.

A brown or dull green residue, by comparison, can mean that your tree is either suffering from a nutritional deficit of some kind, or is already in the process of dying. The darker the brown, the more dire the situation.

Remember when doing this that you should check multiple times at multiple points on a large or complex tree, especially those with more than one trunk. What affects one segment of a tree might not necessarily affect the others.

2. Rot and Fungi

Parasitic growth on your tree doesn’t necessarily spell disaster. But a significant amount of mould, fungus, rot, or other necrotic growths is a telltale sign of a tree in decline. Rot and biotic factors, such as fungi, can attack a tree not just through cannibalising it, but destabilising it entirely from the base upward.

Even if your tree passes other tests, consider calling an expert if your tree has a significant amount of growth. Rot and fungi can cause structural compromise, which carries an increased risk of falling. This is not just a risk to your property – leaving a destabilised tree unattended carries a risk of severely injuring yourself, your family, or an unlucky neighbour.

For an overview of some common tree diseases, have a look at our recent blog post that explains 6 common tree diseases and pests.

3. Cracks

Another clear indicator of poor tree health is the presence of large cracks in the bark. This can be quite tricky to spot on certain trees (a lot of Eucalypts, for example, have very knobbled bark to start with) but are an immediate cause for concern.

Cracks suggest abiotic causes for decay, such as issues with your soil or obstructions within the ground. It may be that concrete, rocks, or other hard surfaces are impeding the growth, and therefore the health of your tree. In some cases, this can also be a destabilisation risk.

4. Pliability

Take a twig from any branch and bend it slightly in your hands. Make sure that you’re not applying too much pressure (you want to be bending, rather than breaking), and get an overall feel for the amount of give it has.

A young, new twig has an incredible amount of flexibility, often being able to bend almost in half without splitting. A twig that displays pliability is a sign of a vibrant and healthy tree.

Conversely, a brittle and immediate snap is a sign that there hasn’t been much greenwood in a long time, or that the tree is closing off extended branches in order to conserve what remaining energy it has.

Like the scratch test, make sure to do this with a good few twigs dotted randomly around the tree to get a sense of whether the problem is localised, or affecting the whole tree.

Call an expert

If you’ve run through these tests and your tree is not obviously dead, or is displaying some symptoms but not others, you should strongly consider calling a tree arborist for a second opinion. Engaging an expert early could be the difference between a simple removal or thousands of dollars in property damage or medical bills.

TreeScience provides quality arboricultural services, including tree removal and diagnosis in both Queensland and NSW, and can be reached on 1300 731 859 or through our contact form.

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