How to tell if your tree is sick, dying, or dead:

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In honor of flu season and everyone who has fallen prey to winter illness, here at John Madison Landscape, we thought we would help you to more easily tell if your tree is healthy, sick, or dying. Keep in mind that it is winter, so many of your trees will have shed their leaves until springtime. Luckily, there are ways to tell how healthy a tree is based solely on its bark. For most plants, there is no one right way to do this that will give you an absolute answer. However, there are several simply things you can do that will give you a pretty good idea of the health of your tree.

Notice the large cavity at the base of this tree. Photo courtesy of

The most basic test is the visual test. Look at your tree. Does your tree have any open wounds or soft spots? This is decay or rot and can structurally compromise your tree. Also, if there is fungus growing on your tree, it may also be indicative of tree rot. Are there any large cracks in your tree bark? These cracks can mean that your tree is unstable in high winds or shifting soil. A tree with either of these conditions should typically be removed because it can fall and cause damage to any valuable surrounding property.

The Twig Test:

Now that you have walked around your tree observing the bark, grab a twig or small branch. Once you have a small branch in your hands, break it. Is the wood green? If it is, than the tree is still alive. If it is brown and dry than that branch is not alive. Did the twig break easily, with little resistance or arching of the branch? If that branch is very lightweight and broke easily, that branch is considered deadwood, which is a sign that the tree is dying.  If the twig you chose is deadwood, test other twigs from various parts of the tree. It could be that just a particular section of the tree is dying and not the whole thing. However, if a large percentage of them are brown, dry, and broke easily, that means that your tree is probably dead and should be removed.

Photo Courtesy of

The Scratch Test:

Now, if you have a large tree, you might not be able to just reach up and grab a twig. If that’s the case, you can scratch the bark of the trunk of the tree. If you scrap away the bark and the wood beneath is not green, than your tree is probably dying or dead. This is not true in every case, though. If you have a tree with multiple trunks, like a crepe myrtle or river birch, be sure to check each truck. One trunk might be sick or dead, while the others are healthy.

Remember that when a tree is dead, it should be removed to protect your property and the property of those around you. However, do not attempt to take down a large, structurally compromised tree on your own! If you need a tree removed or if you are in need any other landscape design services, please email us or call us at 407-935-9151.