Trees are super important for our environment. They give us shade, oxygen, and look beautiful. But, like all living things, trees don’t live forever, and they can get sick or old.

Spotting a dying tree early can help avoid problems and get the right help in time. Knowing the signs of a dying tree, like leaves changing colour, bark issues, and pests, is really important for keeping your yard healthy and safe.

This article will show you how to tell if a tree is dying, how trees try to heal themselves, and what to do if a tree is confirmed dead.

How to tell if a tree is dying?

Determining whether a tree is dying involves observing several signs that indicate its health is declining. Trees, like all living organisms, show specific symptoms when they are in distress.

Here are the key indicators to look for:

1. Leaf Issues

One of the most noticeable signs of a dying tree is the condition of its leaves. Healthy leaves are vibrant in colour and consistent across the tree. If you notice the following, the tree may be in trouble:

  • Discolouration: Leaves turning yellow or brown out of season can signal a problem. This is especially concerning if it happens during the growing season.
  • Sparse Foliage: If the tree has fewer leaves than usual, or if the leaves are only on certain branches, it may be struggling.
  • Dead Leaves: Leaves that are dead and cling to branches during the dormant season can indicate a problem.

2. Bark Problems

The bark of a tree serves as a protective layer. Healthy bark is typically smooth or slightly textured, depending on the species. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Cracks and Splits: Large cracks or splits in the bark can expose the tree to diseases and pests.
  • Peeling or Flaking Bark: While some trees naturally have peeling bark, excessive peeling can be a sign of disease.
  • Cankers: These are sunken, dead areas of bark. Cankers can be caused by fungal infections and are harmful to the tree’s health.

3. Branch Health

Observing the branches of a tree can also give you clues about its health:

  • Dead or Broken Branches: A dying tree often has many dead or broken branches. These branches might break off easily or may already be on the ground.
  • Bare Branches: Branches without leaves during the growing season are a bad sign.
  • Water Sprouts or Suckers: These are shoots that grow from the base of the tree or along its branches. They can indicate stress and are the tree’s attempt to survive.

4. Root Issues

While roots are mostly hidden, some signs can indicate problems:

  • Visible Roots: Exposed roots can be damaged easily and may indicate poor soil conditions or erosion.
  • Mushrooms or Fungi: Fungi growing at the base of the tree or on its roots can signal decay inside the tree.

5. Trunk Damage

The trunk is the main structure of the tree. Damage here can be critical:

  • Holes and Cavities: These can be signs of insect infestation or internal decay.
  • Leaning Trunk: A tree that suddenly starts leaning can be dangerous, indicating root or trunk problems.

6. Pest Infestation

Pests can cause significant damage to trees:

  • Insects: Look for insects on the leaves, bark, and branches. Some insects bore into the tree, leaving small holes.
  • Egg Masses or Larvae: These can be found under leaves or in the bark. They can damage the tree as they hatch and feed.

7. Overall Tree Vitality

Consider the overall appearance and growth of the tree:

  • Growth Rate: A tree that isn’t growing or is growing very slowly might be in decline.
  • Flower and Fruit Production: A decrease in flowers or fruits can be a sign of stress.

Identifying a dying tree involves looking at various signs, including leaf colour and density, bark condition, branch health, root exposure, trunk damage, and pest infestations. Early detection can sometimes allow for interventions that save the tree, such as improved care, pest control, or professional treatment.

If multiple signs are present, it may be time to consult an arborist for a thorough assessment and potential treatment options. Proper care and timely action are crucial in managing the health of your trees.

Can the trees heal themselves?

Trees are pretty amazing at fixing themselves up, even though they do it differently than animals. Knowing how trees deal with injuries and stress can help you see how tough they are and when they might need a little extra help.

Here are the main ways trees take care of themselves:

Compartmentalization of Damage

When a tree is injured, it doesn’t heal by repairing damaged tissue like animals do. Instead, it isolates the damage through a process called compartmentalization. This involves:

  • Sealing Off Wounds: Trees create barriers around the injured area to prevent the spread of decay and pathogens. They do this by forming chemical and physical barriers within their tissues.
  • New Growth: Trees grow new layers of wood and bark over the damaged area, effectively sealing it off. This new growth doesn’t replace the old tissue but covers it, providing protection and maintaining structural integrity.

Callus Formation

One visible sign of a tree’s healing process is the formation of callus tissue:

  • Callus Tissue: When a branch is pruned or a tree is wounded, it responds by producing callus tissue around the edge of the wound. This tissue gradually grows over the wound, reducing exposure to the elements and pathogens.
  • Healing Over Time: Depending on the size of the wound and the health of the tree, this process can take years. Smaller wounds heal more quickly than larger ones.

Defence Mechanisms

Trees have evolved various mechanisms to defend themselves against pests and diseases:

  • Chemical Defenses: Trees produce chemicals that deter pests and inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria. For example, some trees produce resin or sap that can trap insects and create a physical barrier against infection.
  • Structural Defenses: Features like thick bark and strong cell walls help protect trees from physical damage and pest invasion.

Root Regeneration

Roots are crucial for a tree’s stability and nutrient uptake. When roots are damaged, trees can sometimes regenerate new roots:

  • Root Sprouts: In response to damage, some trees can produce new root sprouts from the remaining healthy roots. This helps the tree reestablish its root network and maintain nutrient uptake.
  • Adaptation: Trees can also redirect resources to healthier roots, supporting the overall stability and growth of the tree.

Limitations and Support

While trees have these impressive self-healing capabilities, there are limitations to what they can manage on their own:

  • Severe Damage: Extensive damage from storms, construction, or diseases can overwhelm a tree’s natural defences. In such cases, the tree might struggle to recover fully.
  • Chronic Stress: Prolonged exposure to adverse conditions like drought, poor soil quality, or repeated pest attacks can weaken a tree over time, reducing its ability to heal itself.

How to Help Your Tree Heal

You can support your tree’s healing process through proper care and maintenance:

  • Pruning: Proper pruning techniques can minimize damage and encourage healthy growth. Avoid cutting too close to the trunk and use clean, sharp tools.
  • Watering and Mulching: Providing adequate water and applying mulch can help maintain soil moisture and protect roots.
  • Pest Management: Regularly inspect your tree for signs of pests and diseases. Early intervention can prevent severe infestations and reduce stress on the tree.
  • Soil Health: Ensure your tree has access to nutrient-rich soil. Avoid compacting the soil around the tree, and consider soil amendments if necessary.

What should I do if the tree is dead?

If you determine that a tree is dead, it’s important to take appropriate actions to ensure safety and make the best use of the space. Here are the steps to follow:

Confirm the Tree is Dead

Before taking any action, make sure the tree is indeed dead. A dead tree will exhibit several signs:

  • No Leaves: No leaves during the growing season or leaves that are dry and brown.
  • Brittle Branches: Branches that snap easily and have no flexibility.
  • Peeling Bark: Bark that is peeling off in large sections, exposing the wood underneath.
  • Fungal Growth: Presence of mushrooms or fungi at the base or on the tree.
  • Scratch Test: Scratching the bark to check for green tissue underneath. If none is present, the tree is likely dead.

Evaluate the Situation

Assess the location and condition of the dead tree to decide the best course of action:

  • Safety Hazards: Determine if the tree poses a risk to people, buildings, power lines, or other structures. Dead trees can become unstable and fall unexpectedly.
  • Size and Accessibility: Consider the size of the tree and its proximity to structures or other trees, which can affect the complexity of removal.

Remove the Dead Tree

If the tree is indeed dead and poses a risk or you want to utilize the space, removal is necessary. Here are the steps for removal:

Waist-up portrait of a professional lumberman wearing protective clothes, preparing for logging work in the pine forest

Hiring a Professional

For large or hazardous trees, it’s best to hire a certified arborist or professional tree removal service. They have the expertise and equipment to safely remove the tree. Here’s what to consider:

  • Get Quotes: Contact multiple tree removal services for quotes and references.
  • Check Credentials: Ensure the service is insured and has certified arborists on staff.
  • Permit Requirements: Verify if you need a permit to remove the tree, depending on local regulations.

DIY Removal

For small trees or if you have experience and the necessary tools, you might consider removing the tree yourself:

  • Safety First: Wear protective gear, including gloves, safety goggles, and a hard hat.
  • Cutting Tools: Use appropriate tools such as a chainsaw or handsaw. Ensure they are in good condition and you know how to use them safely.
  • Plan the Fall: Determine the direction in which the tree should fall, ensuring there are no obstacles. Clear the area of people and pets.
  • Cutting Technique: Make a notch cut on the side of the tree facing the direction you want it to fall, followed by a felling cut on the opposite side. Always maintain an escape route.

Post-Removal Actions

After the tree is removed, consider the following:

Stump Removal

You can leave the stump in place or remove it:

  • Grinding: Stump grinding is an effective method to remove the stump down to below ground level, allowing you to replant or landscape the area.
  • Chemical Stump Removal: Apply a stump removal chemical to accelerate the decomposition process.
  • Manual Removal: Digging out the stump is labour-intensive but feasible for small stumps.

Repurpose the Wood

Consider repurposing the wood from the dead tree:

  • Firewood: Dead tree wood can be cut and used as firewood, though it should be properly seasoned.
  • Mulch: Chipped wood can be used as mulch for your garden.
  • Crafts: Larger pieces of wood can be used for woodworking projects.


Once the tree and stump are removed, you might want to plant a new tree:

  • Choose a Suitable Species: Select a tree species appropriate for your climate and soil conditions.
  • Planting Location: Consider the mature size of the tree to avoid future conflicts with structures or power lines.
  • Care: Provide proper care to the new tree, including adequate watering, mulching, and protection from pests.

Removing a dead tree is essential for safety and to make the most of your landscape. Whether you hire a professional or do it yourself, follow safety guidelines and local regulations. After removal, consider repurposing the wood and planting a new tree to maintain the beauty and ecological benefits of your property.


When you’re dealing with a dead tree, it’s important to carefully assess the situation and take action to ensure safety and make the most of the space. If you spot signs of a dying tree early, you can try to help it recover or, if needed, plan for its removal.

Whether you choose to hire a pro or do it yourself, it’s crucial to follow the right procedures to avoid causing damage or getting hurt. Once the tree is gone, think about reusing the wood and planting a new tree to keep enjoying the ecological and aesthetic benefits trees offer.

Taking good care of your trees and acting promptly can really boost the health and beauty of your landscape for years to come.