Written by Jennymarie Jemison
Signs that a tree is struggling aren’t too hard to see if you are paying attention. Dead branches and leaves, holes or secretions from the bark, deformities or deficiencies in the leaves are all signs that a tree is dealing with an issue. But is it fatal? When inspecting a mature tree that seems to be struggling, there are some tell-tale signs that will tell you when a tree is, indeed, on its deathbed. f the tree is experiencing all of them, you most likely do have a tree that is on its way out.
Dying and dead trees can be a danger as if and when they fall they can damage people or property. So it’s good to know some initial ways to evaluate the tree’s morbidity, and then call an arborist to confirm and potentially remove the tree thoughtfully, instead of waiting for the fall and the liability that comes if the tree does come down in the next storm that blows.
So how can you tell if your tree will fail or survive? The tree itself is the proof and by a quick inspection, you should be able to determine what sort of situation you are dealing with.
Most of these indicators can be seen when looking at the base of the tree, so start at the roots. Has there been any loss in volume of the soil immediately around the roots of the tree? Using your hands if need be, pull some soil away from the base of the tree. Is it all uniform? Or do you find sections where the soil seems to have abandoned the roots, leaving hollow sections underneath?
If you do encounter a hollowing in the soil, almost a large pocket of air underneath, those will be your diseased sections of the tree. The hollowing spreads into the tree itself. A test to see if the tree is hollowing out from within is to take a rubber mallet and give the sides of the tree a whack all around. You are not trying to hurt the tree. You are listening. Play it like a drum. You should not get much of a sound on healthy parts of the trunk, the mallet should bounce back from hard areas in an unsatisfying way, but the hollow areas will have a different, more resonant quality.
Stand back and look at the tree if you find a hollowing, has the tree started to lean? This is one of the most dangerous situations for a dying tree as the roots die in some areas but hold in others, you see the potential for a fall increases.
Look for Funghi
Continuing with a visual inspection of the base of the tree, are there fungi growing on or near the roots of the tree? That is a bad sign, and maybe one of the biggest indicators that the tree is not going to be salvageable. Some mushrooms do have beneficial relationships with trees, but to see them growing near the roots shows decay and that the fungi are part of that process, actively attacking the tree. If you find fungi, assume everything past it is rotting.
This tree is putting out new branches as a sign of distress
Some trees (often fruit trees) may send up profuse amounts of new shoots from the base of the tree. Not from the soil, but growing from the tree itself. That is a sign the tree is under extreme duress and is trying to grow more branches to balance the injury or illness it is battling. If it's possible, cut a diseased branch off and inspect it. Are there any insects within? They can offer clues.
Identifying the larvae of wood-borer beetle, for example, shows the tree is most likely doomed, as it targeted by beetles because the tree already showed weakness and damage. The larvae will destroy what's left.
Look at the Bark
Inspecting further up the tree, how is the bark? Is it consistent? Or have sections fallen away, leaving smooth areas exposed underneath? Are there vertical splits or any holes in the tree? Can you see where the healthy sides of the tree continue hopefully on, but the dead parts have gone brittle and dark?
Now inspect the branches, if it is still winter for your area, a deciduous tree should have lost its leaves. But if the tree still has theirs, that too is a bad sign. Conversely, if only parts of the tree have leafed out, but others haven’t, you will see that the rot that you found in the root area has spread into the canopy of the tree.
If the tree has any stems you can easily reach, scratch them with a thumbnail. Is there green to be found under the surface? Or is the stem dry and brittle? Those parts of the tree will never return to health. If you do find green stems, and none of the other issues described, then congratulations! You are just impatient, and your tree is still dormant and is not dead.
If enough of the above conditions are seen, you should call an arborist to confirm and potentially remove the dying tree, from your landscape, before it can cause any damage. Don’t despair! It’s a normal part of the life cycle of the tree. And once it is gone, sunlight will reach your garden differently.
How will you take advantage? Will you plant a new tree, or put in a new garden bed? These are very exciting opportunities for a gardener, and they don’t come around very often. Embrace the new beginnings, and honor the life of your old tree.