How to Tell if a Tree is Dead in Winter

How to Tell if a Tree is Dead in Winter

Trees work so hard for us year-round, bringing a lively aesthetic and a host of benefits to our yards. So it’s understandable that they need a relaxing winter season to keep delivering these perks.

The dormant season is a restful time for trees to conserve energy and prepare for spring. Trees are just slowing down during this time. But with bare branches and limited activity, a dormant tree can look eerily like a dead tree.

Luckily, there a few easy checks you can do to make sure your tree is still in good health. Read on to learn how to tell the difference between dead and dormant branches.

3-Step Check: Is Your Tree Dormant or Dead?

1. Look for Budding Life

  • Trees in dormancy: Get close to your tree and search for small leaf buds. Yes, even in winter, your tree should still have buds! Branches full of green buds are alive and ready to bloom in spring.
  • Trees in trouble: A lack of buds, or buds that are dry and shriveled, indicate a dead branch. Check a few branches to determine the fate of the tree as a whole. Likewise, if you find leaves that hung on well past fall leaf drop, you have another sign of a dead or dying tree.

2. Inspect the Trunk

  • Trees in dormancy: Tree bark goes through a similar cycle as tree leaves. Bark replaces itself as often as it grows. So, you should see fresh bark growing in.
  • Trees in trouble: If your tree trunk shed layers and didn’t replace them, this could be a sign of tree decline. Then, look for cracks in the trunk, which is another symptom arborists look for on a dying tree. If you see this warning sign, ask your arborist if the tree is a risk that needs to be removed.

3. Perform the Scratch Test

  • Trees in dormancy: Use your fingertip or a pocketknife to lightly scratch a small spot on one of the tree’s twigs. The layer immediately under the bark should be moist and bright green.
  • Trees in trouble: You’ve got a problem if you see a brittle, brown layer when you scratch the twig. Repeat this test on a couple twigs. While you’re at it, try bending tree twigs. If they break, they’re dead.

Unsure if your tree is in dormancy or in trouble? Call your local arborist for a free consultation.

  • The Tree Doctor June 12, 2018 >Hi Mary, Recently planted trees sometimes take a little longer to get going in the spring. They also tend to be more susceptible to weather fluctuations compared to established trees because they have fewer roots because of the transplanting process. Check the twigs where there are no leaves yet. If you scratch the bark and the twigs are still green, give them a little more time. If they are brown or faded green/yellow, they may not have survived their first winter. I suggest you document the tree in photos and take them to the nursery where you purchased the tree. It may still be under warranty depending on your source. Hopefully, this helps. Here if you have any more questions, Mary.
  • Mary Jones June 11, 2018 >We have a 2 year old jay maple Was doing good but a late frost came in canada Half the tree looks dead 1 branch sticking out bottom is filled with red leaves Any chance of survival? Thx
  • The Tree Doctor April 30, 2018 >Hi Bev, The green under the twig is a promising sign, but the lack of green lower on the trunk is a cause for concern. I cannot provide a fair assessment of what might be going on without seeing your tree in person. I suggest you contact a certified arborist in your area. He or she can take a look at your tree and provide a first-hand diagnosis as well as possible options for you to consider. Here is the webpage for your local Davey office based on the zip code provided: Their contact information can be found here and you can even fill out a short form to request a free consultation. Hopefully, this helps! Here if you have any more questions, Bev.
  • Bev Sloan April 30, 2018 >My lilac tree has dead buds on the branches but when I do a scratch test beneath the bark it is green. When I do down to the trunk and do a scratch test there is no green. It is april 29th and I dont have any leaves on my tree. I dont know if this tree is dying
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