Is My Tree Dead Or Alive: Learn How To Tell If A Tree Is Dying

Twig Cut Open Showing Bright Green Inside
scratch test
(Image credit: Gardening Know How, via Nikki Tilley)

One of the joys of spring is watching the bare skeletons of deciduous trees fill out with soft, new leafy foliage. If your tree doesn’t leaf out on schedule, you may start wondering, “is my tree alive or dead?” You can use various tests, including the tree scratch test, to determine whether your tree is still alive. Read on to find out how to tell if a tree is dying or dead.

Is a Tree Dead or Alive?

These days of high temperatures and little rainfall has taken its toll on trees in many parts of the country. Even drought tolerant trees become stressed after several years without sufficient water, especially in soaring summer temperatures.

You need to find out whether trees near your home or other structures are dead as early as possible. Dead or dying trees can topple in winds or with shifting soils and, when they fall, can cause damage. It is important to learn how to tell if a tree is dying or dead.

Obviously, the first “test” for determining the status of a tree is to inspect it. Walk around it and take a close look. If the tree has healthy branches covered with new leaves or leaf buds, it is in all likelihood, alive.

If the tree has neither leaves nor buds, you may wonder: “is my tree dead or alive.” There are other tests you can do to tell should this be the case.

Bend some of the smaller branches to see if they snap. If they break quickly without arching, the branch is dead. If many branches are dead, the tree may be dying. To make a determination, you can use the simple tree scratch test.

Scratching Bark to See if Tree is Alive

One of the best ways to determine if a tree or any plant is dead is the tree scratch test. Just beneath the dry, outer layer of bark in a tree’s trunk lies the cambium layer of bark. In a living tree, this is green; in a dead tree, it is brown and dry.

Scratching bark to see if the tree is alive involves removing a little bit of the outside layer of bark to get a look at the cambium layer. Use your fingernail or small pocketknife to remove a small strip of exterior bark. Don’t make a great wound in the tree, but just enough to see the layer below.

If you perform the tree scratch test on a tree trunk and see green tissue, the tree is alive. This does not always work so well if you scratch one single branch, since the branch may be dead but the rest of the tree alive.

During times of severe drought and high temperatures, a tree may “sacrifice” branches, allowing them to die in order for the rest of the tree to stay alive. So if you're choosing to do a scratch test on a branch, choose several in different areas of the tree, or simply stick with scraping the tree trunk itself.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.