How to Tell If a Tree Is Dead: 6 Signs to Look For

A tree in a field with a few obvious signs its died (Sticks around the bases, vertical splits, peeling bark).

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There may be a time, whether from a disease, a pesky insect, or old age, that a tree you care for has died. Most trees can and will last a very long time if properly cared for, but they do die, and sometimes you might have difficulty knowing if a tree is dead. There is always the doubt, "Is it dying or maybe just sick and, with help, it can be saved?" Luckily some tell-tale signs are pretty obvious that can tell you whether you can look forward to years of shade or have to start thinking about tree removal. (It's always a good idea to call a certified arborist for a second opinion — consultations are usually free.)

There is a quick and easy test that you should do yourself before calling an arborist, but first, you will want to give the tree a brief look and see if there are any of the following signs:

Lack of Foliage

If it is spring or summer and all the other trees in the area have leafed out, and your tree does not have leaves, that is a sign of an issue. A lack of leaves may not always mean it is dead, but it is sick, so you must keep inspecting it, as this sign will not tell the full story. If it is winter or autumn and you have a deciduous tree that is not an oak, beech, hornbeam, or ironwood, and it is holding on to some leaves, this can also be a symptom. Again, this will not be conclusive, so you must look for more evidence.

Trunk Damage

Seeing evident trunk damage will tell you a good bit. If the trunk is damaged and the bark is stripped away entirely around the tree, it will not survive. Even bark damage to the main trunk that encompasses half the tree increases the chance of tree death.

Fungus Growth

The first thing to look for is the presence of bracket or shelf fungus on the trunk or a large amount of fungus growth around the tree's base. Fungi that attack dead tissue on an otherwise healthy tree is not a problem; it's when fungi attack live tissue that you have a problem.

Presence of fungi on an unhealthy tree could indicate that the trunk is rotting, providing a growth medium for the fungi. When a large number of fungi are seen in the ground around the tree, this can signify the roots are rotting away, providing that same growth medium.

Bracket mushroom on a rotting tree trunk.

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Vertical Cracks

While not always a definite sign, large vertical cracks or splits may be an indicator and, if paired with other signs, will almost certainly point to a tree that is dying or dead. A split on its own, depending on the size of the tree, is not necessarily a death sentence but will almost guarantee a call to an arborist. There are several options for fixing a crack other than removing the tree. Removing the tree is the most expensive solution, but it's also the safest, since a cracked tree can pose a risk to the surrounding structures, not to mention people.

Peeling Bark

A good amount of tree species have exfoliating bark and many can recover from even extensive bark damage, so this on its own is not a symptom. The most concerning instance of peeling bark is when it encompasses the tree in a 360-degree pattern, called girdling. (A girdled tree can survive, but you should consult an arborist for assistance.)

If the damaged bark looks older and the wood that shows through is not green but is worn smooth without any signs of healing, this is another definitive sign that a tree is dead.

Sudden Leaning

The pesky mushrooms mentioned above, which have started feeding on rotting roots, may foretell a symptom yet to come. When enough of that root structure rots away, the tree will develop a lean, becoming obvious as the ground around the base grows softer. By this time, the other signs should have started to become clear, but if the tree is not in the open or a heavily forested area, the first sign you may see is a leaning tree.

A sign of a lean is not a sure sign of a dying tree, though. Consider the tree's exposure to wind, the state of its branches, and the slope of the ground it's growing on, since all of those can cause a lean, too. It's a lean that develops suddenly that's cause for concern.

Quick Test to Confirm a Tree Is Dead

  • Scratch a limb or a branch with a sharp knife and see if it's green underneath in several areas.
  • Check for shelf or ground fungus.
  • Check for physical damage to the tree.

If there is no green on any test areas, evidence of rot or fungus, or any physical damage to the tree, you can be assured that the tree is dead. Always call a certified arborist for a second opinion.

  • Do you have to remove a dead tree?

    This question is a tough one. If a dead tree poses a hazard, then yes, you need to remove it without a doubt. The issue is what presents a hazard and when. There are clear examples of a hazard, a tree over a house, a sidewalk, a street, and so on. But what if it is in a section of your property that will not present a hazard? If this is the case, there are arguments for letting it fall. The answer is all about a hazard and risk assessment. Of course, local ordinances may sometimes come into play and require their removal, so it is a good idea to check your municipalities resources out.

  • How are dead trees harmful?

    Dead trees lose structural integrity as they decay, making them a hazard to drop limbs and eventually fall entirely. Other than that, Dead trees also attract wildlife, and while this is usually a good thing, sometimes the guests can be unwanted. Finally, if a pathogen or insect kills the tree, the dead tree can act as a vector and spread the disease or insects.

  • If I have a dead tree removed should I have the stump removed too?

    While it is optional, most people choose stump removal for aesthetic reasons. There is a practical reason, though, that stumps left to rot can leave tree diseases and insects and invite new insects to your property.