Across the world, lightning strikes millions of times per day. Each bright bolt poses a threat to nearby trees, and sometimes our treasured plants suffer well after a storm has passed.
One of those troubled trees belongs to Anita, a Davey blog reader. She reached out to ask about the best next steps for a maple in her yard that fell victim to lightning damage. She said: “Our large maple tree was apparently struck by lightning about three years ago. At first, we noticed a couple of dead branches, and this year half of the tree has no leaves and appears dead. Should we cut it down?”
Anita poses a great question: lightning can injure trees to the point that they need to be removed for safety. But, let’s dig a little deeper into what could be going on with your lightning-struck tree.
My tree was struck by lightning. What do I do now?
First and foremost, any hanging or broken branches should be removed ASAP. If they’re too large for you to remove on your own, have a certified arborist do the job.
Lightning damage also warrants a tree inspection. As you’ll read below, it’s hard to say if a tree will or won't bounce back from a lightning strike, so it’s best to get an arborist's opinion.
Signs that a tree was struck by lightning
The tricky thing about lightning damage is that it can be very subtle, if not completely unnoticeable. Lightning strikes the inside of a tree, targeting a layer underneath the bark that we can’t see. So it’s not uncommon for a tree to look totally normal for days or even weeks and then slowly decline. Or, some trees die shortly after a storm.
Sometimes, though, the inner damage does affect the outer parts of the tree. In this case, lightning damage looks like:
- A crack or slit that runs down the tree’s trunk
- Chunks of bark stripped off the tree
- Sparse leaves; or wilted leaves throughout the canopy
- “Burned” or blackened areas of bark
Will my tree die if it's struck by lightning?
Not necessarily. Some trees can overcome the damage after being struck. But the fate of your tree depends on a lot of factors—its health, its species, its age and even its location. Plus, even if your tree didn’t die from a strike per se, it may have been wounded, leaving an entryway for insects or pathogens to attack and weaken the tree in the long term.
That being said, the general consensus is trees that were only stuck on one side of the trunk have a pretty good chance at survival. But if both sides of a tree are damaged, it will likely need to be removed.
How to protect my tree from lightning damage
Hands down, a lightning protection system is a tree’s best defense against harmful bolts. The system diverts lightning away from the tree by giving it a different path to the ground. Keep in mind that no system is 100% guaranteed to prevent damage, so consult with a certified arborist if you’re interested in having a lightning protection system installed.
In the meantime, a little TLC can go a long way both before and after lightning damage. Making sure your tree is supplied with mulch, well-watered, fertilized and pruned keeps it strong before the storm and will help it during the recovery process.