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Many worry during winter: Is my tree dead or dormant? A leafless, resting tree can appear dead. Read more on how to tell if a tree is dead in winter.

How to Tell if a Tree is Dead in Winter

January 24, 2017

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.

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