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How to Identify a Dead Tree in Your Yard (4 Signs)

Identifying a dead tree can be a tricky matter. While many people think that you can easily know a tree is dead when it stops growing and begins to rot, things may not be so simple always. This is why knowing how to identify a dead tree in your yard is essential.

There are times when a dead tree may remain standing in its place and look as healthy as ever. It can be months before you begin to notice that something is amiss.

However, certain signs can tell you whether a tree is dying or dead. You need to know these signs to determine if any tree in your ward is dying or has become dead.

But before doing that, let’s first understand why it’s important to identify a dead tree and what causes a tree to die.

Why Do You Need to Identify a Dead Tree?

There are no two ways that you need to identify a dying or dead tree as soon as possible. This is because when a tree begins to die or becomes dead, its structure can weaken rapidly and cause its branches or the whole tree to collapse without any warning.

Such falling trees can be dangerous, especially if they are located near your home or a play area. They can suddenly fall on top of your home and damage it significantly.

They can also turn into a safety hazard for you, your family, and other members of your community. Furthermore, a dead tree can become the cause of the spread of diseases or pest infestation to other healthy trees, leading to their deaths as well.  

What Causes a Tree to Die?

How to Identify a Dead Tree in Your Yard

Several factors can cause a tree to die. Some of the common causes of death for a tree include the following:

Adverse Environmental Conditions

Poor or adverse environmental conditions are among the main reasons for a tree to die. Extreme hot or cold spots, long spells of droughts, salty soils, poorly draining soils, ground pollution, and air pollution are some of the factors that can cause a tree to suffer from environmental stress and lead to its death.

While many trees adapt well when planted in a new location or a new environment, some species may not do so.

If you plant such a species in your yard, it might be at risk of not being able to withstand the conditions presented by the new environment and ultimately wither away.

Harmful Insects and Diseases

There’s no denying that unchecked infestation of pests and diseases can cause the death of even healthy trees. Harmful insects can also invade trees suffering from diseases or environmental problems and impact them adversely.

Apart from directly causing the death of a tree, they can also spread a fungal infection from one tree to another. Some insects even attack the cambial layer of a tree while boring for food or to create nesting cavities.

They can defoliate the tree to such an extent that death becomes inevitable. Some of the harmful insects include the gypsy moth, pine beetles, and emerald ash borers.   

Virulent diseases, such as chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, can cause entire forests to die. Other common diseases, such as oak wilt, armillaria root rot, and anthracnose, can also be fatal for the trees on your property.

These pathogens can damage a tree by invading roots, leaves, and bark wounds. Once they reach the vascular system, they start damaging the tree from inside.   

Environmental Disasters

When your trees are exposed to environmental disasters, such as flash floods and tornado-strength windstorms, they can take a terrible hit. After a flood, if the floodwater doesn’t recede quickly, the oxygen levels in your tree roots may diminish, leading to damage.

Some species may not be built strong enough to withstand the weight of heavy snow deposited on the branches during harsh winter days, causing the limbs to break under pressure.

Long spells of drought may make life hard for not just moisture-loving trees but all trees in general.  

Old Age

It is natural for trees to die of old age, and there is little that you can do about this. When a tree beats the odds and advances towards ripe old age, a slow dying process starts inside it.

In long-lived species, this dying process can take a long time to complete, sometimes even extending centuries.

After the tree matures, its growth and the ability to support itself begin to diminish. The tree starts to suffer from a loss of adequate foliage essential for its food and hydration.

New branches sprout to sustain the tree, but they are often insufficient for the purpose. With time, the tree gradually begins to collapse under its weight.

What are the Signs of a Dying Tree?

Before you take out your pruning pole and chainsaw to remove a tree, you need to be sure that it is dead and there’s no way to save it.

Here is what you need to look for when determining whether a tree is dying or dead:

1. Leaves falling out

Leaves can provide a clear indication of whether or not your tree is dying or dead. Some species do take more time than others to leaf out. But if you find that your tree hasn’t sprouted a single leaf in August, then it can mean serious trouble.  

During the winter season, when trees have no leaves, you can take a look at the tree buds to determine if your tree is healthy or not. Tree buds are small dots that you can spot along the branch ends. If these dots are missing, your tree may not be alive.

If you notice that the needles of your evergreen trees are falling out from the spot closest to the trunk first and then moving outward, know that things are normal.

But if they take place in the opposite direction or if the evergreen foliage turns brown at the branch ends first, then your tree may be dying.

Also, if any tree starts to have brown leaves or needles during summer, things may not be all fine for the tree.

2. Branches dying from the tips

Branches can also reveal a lot about your tree’s health. If you notice multiple branches are dying from the tips, it can only mean that your tree is facing a decline in health.

It is important to remember that a single dead branch may not mean your whole tree is dead. But if multiple branches are facing the same issue, it can mean things are going the wrong way.

You can carry out a small test to determine if a branch is alive or not. Get a small twig from the branch and bend it between two fingers. If the twig bends easily, you will know that your tree is alive.

But if it is brittle and breaks, your tree may be dead. You need to conduct this test with twigs from several branches to see if a single branch is dead or the entire tree.

Another way to find out whether a tree is alive or not is to scratch a small section of the tree’s bark. The tree is alive if you see green on scratching.

These tests are more appropriate for smaller trees and shrubs. Finding a few brittle twigs in a century-old oak tree may not necessarily mean that it is dead.

3. Rotting trunk

When it comes to your tree trunk, if you find that large portions of bark are peeling off the trunk, it can be a distress sign. Also, if you notice that a large amount of rot surrounds the trunk, it might mean the tree is no longer alive.

It may come across as a surprise, but a hollow trunk doesn’t indicate that your tree is not alive. A tree can easily survive and thrive with a hollow center.

4. Roots rots

The base of your tree is another area that tells a lot about its health. If you see a heavy growth of mushrooms at the base of your tree, it can mean rotting roots. Another thing to notice is if your tree has roots that are lifting out of the soil.

These are not the surface roots but roots that are separated from the soil. Such roots can mean that the tree is not stabilized and can cause safety concerns.

What to Do if a Tree is Dying or Dead?

The most obvious solution is to remove the tree to minimize the safety risks. But sometimes, you may not need to pick up a handsaw or other tools and go about removing the tree.

In other words, you can still have the tree standing around. You can consult a certified arborist to know whether the tree needs to be removed or not.

When you decide to remove the tree, ensure that you have the right equipment for the job, such as cordless saws for cutting tree branches, loppers, stump grinders, protective clothing, helmets, safety glasses, gloves, etc. These things will help you to get the job done efficiently.

Conclusion: How to Identify a Dead Tree in Your Yard

Now that you have a fair idea about how to identify a dead tree in your yard, you can make informed decisions about the trees on your property.

If you are still unsure, you can always reach out for expert help and suggestions from an arborist.

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Author Bio:

Mark Yeater is the Content Marketing Manager at Tree Stuff. He loves to collaborate with arborists and has written various articles around nature, tree climbing, eco-friendly environment, and much more. In his free time, you can see him conducting seminars to educate people on the advanced techniques and safety measures for tree climbing. Mark’s fondness for trees since childhood makes him a true Dendrophile.