How to Tell If A Tree Is Dead?

Dead trees can be a hazard. They physically hurt people by falling down as well as breaking nearby property. Many people don’t really know how to recognize whether a tree is truly dead or not. This problem can especially apparent during the dormant season of deciduous trees.

One of the first signs of a dead tree is the lack of any new leaves and stems. Using the scratch test, if the cambium layer of the tree is dry and brown, it is a good indicator of a dead tree. You should remove dead trees as soon as possible as they are prone to falling down and spreading diseases.

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How to Tell if a Tree is Dead?

There are a lot of signs which can tell you if a tree is dead or not. First, take a walk around the tree, if you see any fresh growth or fresh leaves on the stems and the bark then the tree is not dead.

A tree that has no new leaves, the trunk is drying out and the bark is falling off – it is a sign of a nearly or already dead tree.

There is another test which you can conduct to get a better idea.

Tree Scratch Test

The tree scratch test is a great method that you can use to get a much better idea of the status of your tree.

Usually, beneath the dark brown and dry layer of the bark lies the cambium layer of the tree. The cambium layer should be green in color if the tree is alive.

On the other hand, this layer will turn brown if the tree is dead.

How to Carry Out the Scratch Test?

Make sure you only scratch a small area, there is no need to make a big wound.

Take a pocket knife or any small sharp tool and remove a little bit of the dry brown layer to get access to the inner cambium.

You should ideally do this on the trunk of the tree as individual branches are not very reliable sources for this information. Some of the branches might be dead in a tree while others are alive and well.

During the dry season or during droughts, some trees regularly sacrifice some of their branches to save the nutrients and water demand. But the trunk is the main ‘vein’ of the tree.

Why Are Dead Trees Dangerous?

Dead trees can be really dangerous, especially if they have been standing for a long time. There are a lot of ways because they are considered to be dangerous.

Pest Infestation

One of the rarely talked about factors in relation to a dead tree is the possibility of pest infestation and diseases.

Dead trees can be a huge attraction for pests like termites, carpenter ants, and fungus which can multiply pretty fast. All three can spread to other trees and even to your home.

Pests and diseases can also further weaken the tree’s structure which makes them even more prone to falling down.

Prone to Falling Down

Dead trees are much more prone to falling down. The trunk of the tree does not receive any nutrition from the roots which makes the tree dry and weak.

Over time, the wood of a dead tree rots, and it is not able to support the weight of the entire tree properly.

Because of the lack of structural integrity, any strong gusts of wind or a storm can topple the tree. It should also be noted that even individual branches of the tree can fall down without any warning.

For more info on that check: How to tell if a tree is going to fall

Do Dead Tree Need to Be Removed?

Dead trees should be removed as soon as possible, not only are they dangerous in terms of both physical injuries and property damage, but they also ruin the entire scenery of your yard.

If there is one dead tree in your backyard, it can ruin the entire look. Imagine a tree that is completely dry, without leaves and the bark peeling off, it is not a pretty sight at all.

More info on is dead trees should be cut down here.

How Long Can A Dead Tree Remain Standing?

This depends on a lot of factors including the size of the tree, the kind of wood, and the amount of moisture present in the soil.

Larger dead trees tend to fall quicker, their trunks are not able to support the weight of the tree and any strong gusts of wind can topple them. With smaller trees, not only do they weigh less, but their center of gravity is also lower. This makes it harder for strong winds to topple them.

If a tree is considered a hardwood, then they will likely remain standing for a longer period of time. For softer wood trees, their trunks tend to rot quicker. This makes them unstable and sometimes the wood can also crumble due to the weight of the tree.

If the soil has a lot of moisture, it can rot the trunk of the tree faster. Moisture leads to higher infestation chances as well as forms the perfect environment for fungal growth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does A Lack of Foliage Mean the Tree Is Dead?

No, but it is a good indicator for you to check the tree properly. Deciduous trees lose their foliage for a season, it does not mean that the tree is dead. But lack of foliage is also one of the first indicators of a dead tree.

Should You Hire A Professional to Find Out If Your Tree Is Dead?

Calling an Arborist can definitely tell you if the tree is dead or not. If you are unsure about the status of your tree, it is recommended to seek advice.

Can You Paint or Decorate A Dead Tree?

If you don’t intend to cut down or remove a dead tree, you can surely paint or decorate it. It is not recommended that you so, attracting more attention to a dead tree can be an unnecessary hazard.


The first step in finding out if your tree is dead is to look for any new leaves or stems, any new growth means the tree is still alive. You can also conduct the scratch test to get a better idea. Dead trees should be removed as soon as possible due to their risk of falling down and spreading diseases.

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