How To Tell if a Tree Is Dead: Four Signs To Look For

Is one of your beloved trees showing symptoms of declining health? Can you still save it, or is it time to say a heartfelt goodbye? 

As the go-to expert tree service in Denver, we at Bear Creek Tree Service know how to tell if a tree is dead and can help you make an informed decision. Keep reading as we break down the most common warning signs.

how to tell if a tree is dead

1. Foliage Issues

Your tree’s leaves are responsible for a lot more than just a stunning autumnal display. They serve as the plant’s food factory, converting sunlight into energy. As such, unhealthy leaves can indicate an unhealthy or even dead tree, so look out for the following signs of a dead tree:

  • Tree shedding leaves before its dormant season
  • Unusual leaf discoloration
  • Drooping, curling, wilting, or browning leaves
  • Irregular leaf shape

2. Bark Disorders

The bark is like a tree’s skin — it protects the delicate inner layers where nutrient transport occurs. Trouble begins when this protective shield sustains damage. Common issues include:

  • Missing or delaminating bark: Healthy trees continuously grow new bark. If you notice large parts of your tree’s bark peeling or falling off, reach out to an arborist immediately.
  • Cracks and splits: Minor bark cracks are usually not a cause for concern, but deep fissures and splits can expose the inner tissues to pests and disease.

When learning how to tell if a tree is dead, you’ll likely come across the scratch test. For the scratch test, use a knife to gently scrape an already exposed portion. If the layer underneath looks green and moist, your tree is likely alive. However, brown or brittle flesh underneath indicates a dead tree.

3. Leaning Trunk

Did your tree suddenly change its position from upright to slanting? A gradual lean over time is normal as your tree seeks the sun, but a sudden one, especially accompanied by exposed roots, might indicate extreme root decay. It might even be at risk of toppling over.

4. Late-Stage Fungal Growth 

Fungal invaders often infect already declining trees, siphoning off essential tree nutrients and further weakening their structural integrity. Look out for the following signs:

  • Mushrooms or toadstools sprouting at the base or on the trunk
  • Dark, sunken areas on the bark, otherwise known as cankers 
  • Shelf or bracket fungi (usually hard and woody) on the tree trunk 
  • A foul smell, often a byproduct of internal rot 

Fungus is usually a silent killer, quietly colonizing plants from the inside out. If you notice visible growths on your specimen, it’s usually a lost cause.

Contact the Experts

When one important part of your yard or garden starts showing signs of ill health, it’s easy to panic. However, remember that not all signs are a definitive death sentence for your tree. At Bear Creek Tree Service, we know how to tell if a tree is dead and offer professional guidance to help you understand the situation better. Call (720) 299-1409 if you spot fungus on tree bark, brittle branches, a hollow trunk, or other common red flags.

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