How to Tell If a Tree is Dead

Although a tree might look dead, there are other reasons why the tree may not be dead.

how to tell if a tree is dead
how to tell if a tree is dead

How To know If A Tree Is Dead

If you’re wondering how to tell if a tree is dead, then you’re probably already familiar with the first signs of tree decay.

A lack of new leaves and buds – or any leaves at all – can be a bad sign. Mushrooms and other fungus growing on the tree, as well as split or peeling bark may also mean that your tree is dying.

Why a Tree Might Look Dead

Although a tree might look dead, there are other reasons why the tree may lose it’s vitality.

Waiting for new leaves or buds to indicate a tree is still growing only works on deciduous trees. Even then, deciduous trees only grow these leaves in Spring and Summer before starting to die back in the Autumn.


However, even evergreen trees possess a life-cycle. For example, conifers still shed their needles but the process takes a little longer; and happens between the summer and fall. With these trees the change won’t be as dramatic but you should still notice them looking more lush come spring.


tree loosing leaves
two tree surgeons with chainsaws planning to cutting a tree

Identifying a Dead Tree

If you want to know how to tell if a tree is dead without waiting for spring, then there are other warning signs to consider.

Although Autumn is considered a time of death for most vegetation, it’s when fungus begins to thrive. If your tree has visible fungus growing on it then it’s usually time to act. Mushrooms can grow on or around the roots, as well as on the tree itself.

Although fungal growth doesn’t always mean that the tree is dead it’s generally not a good sign. Mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll which means they can’t photosynthesize like plants do. They instead live on and break down decaying organic matter. This is why mushrooms growing on the mulch around a tree’s base is not necessarily as severe. Whereas oyster mushrooms growing directly from a wound on the trunk is a telltale sign of tree decay.

Wounds themselves can be another way of knowing how to tell if a tree is dead. If a trunk is splitting or cracked with the bark peeling away then it’s likely to be dead already. Trees can be wounded more easily than you might expect; often due to human interaction, insects, birds and other natural phenomena such as lightning strikes.


Performing a Tree Snap Test

One method how to tell if a tree is dead is to perform a snap test. This involves taking a young branch or twig and attempting to bend it 90 degrees. If the twig/branch bends then the tree is probably very much alive.

On the other hand, if the branch/twig snaps or shatters then the tree may be dead. Dead branches don’t always mean a dead tree, however. Trees will sometimes ‘sacrifice’ branches, to keep the main tree alive. The purpose of this is to conserve energy during droughts or periods where they might struggle to find nutrients.


how to tell if a tree is dead
how to tell if a tree is dead

Performing a Tree Scratch Test

The most effective way how to tell if a tree is dead is to perform a scratch test directly on the trunk. This involves using your hands or a small knife to remove a portion of the tree’s bark. If the tree is alive you should notice the layer immediately under the bark is green. If this layer is brown and there’s little resistance when you remove the bark, then the tree is probably dead.


This is because what is known as the cambium layer under the bark delivers water and nutrients to the tree itself. If this part of the tree is damaged to the point of being dry and brown, then the tree can no longer absorb nutrients. Which will render the tree dead shortly, if it isn’t already deceased.

It is important not to wound the tree when performing a scratch test. Remove only the bark so you can see the cambium layer. If you treat a tree’s bark like the skin of an animal it becomes easy to understand why tree wounds can cause infections. Trees can grow something called ‘woundwood’ to heal areas of damage, much like we grow a callus. Although, the best way to prevent tree death is to avoid causing excess damage in the first place.


What Man Coed Can Do

If you’re still unsure how to tell if a tree is dead then it’s best to contact a professional arborist or tree surgeon, such as those employed by Man Coed. We can offer tree surveys for small homes as well as much larger areas like university campuses and councils.

We also offer a 3 – 5 year tree management plan that will let you know if any tree maintenance is likely to be required in the future. If your tree is dead then rest assured we will remove it efficiently and in a safe manner. These dead trees are then recycled into things such as mulch, which can offer a future tree greater protection!


tree surgery