The Signs of a Dying Tree and How to Save It

A dying tree can be a scary sight. The leaves may have turned brown and withered, the bark is flaking off in chunks, and the branches are drooping with no life left in them. But don’t panic! There are several things you can do to try to save your tree before it’s too late!

Trees are a beautiful and important part of our environment. They provide the oxygen we need to survive and shade for us during those hot summer days. But, if you notice that your tree is starting to show signs of dying, then it’s time to take action before it’s too late! 

The first thing you can do is try watering the tree. This will help with any drought-related issues and give nutrients back into the soil around the base of the trunk. 

Next up would fertilise your tree– this helps promote healthy blooming and keeps fungus from taking over. You should also check for insects or diseases by looking closely at leaves and bark for anything abnormal-looking

Symptoms Of A Dying Tree

You can usually tell when something is off about your tree. After spending so much time admiring it, things like brown leaves or mouldy growth stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s a little harder to tell just how much trouble your tree could be in, though. 

That’s why Bryan, a Davey blog reader from British Columbia, reached out. He was “concerned that some of our trees might be dying or in danger of falling on our house or other buildings” and wanted to know some dying tree symptoms.

A dead or dying tree is nothing to play guessing games with. So instead, take these simple steps to check on your tree and find out just what it needs.

It’s important to know the difference between a dead and a declining tree. Usually, sick trees can be saved, but a dead tree is a huge risk to you and your home.

A few telling symptoms of a dead tree include:

  • Cracks in the trunk or peeling bark
  • Mushrooms growing near the tree’s roots
  • Multiple branches that have no living buds

Trees are valuable assets to a landscape. Not only do they provide aesthetics, but these towering plants also offer shade and shelter for wildlife and other plants. Unfortunately, sometimes a dying tree is obvious, with its leaves turning brown in the summer or branches riddled with holes from wood-boring pests. 

But it’s not always clear when trees are in poor health, which can make it difficult to address, especially when a dead or dying tree is located near a building or home. Broken limbs from a dying tree can cause injuries to people and pets and have the potential to lead to costly repairs if it lands on your home or car. Keep an eye out for these seven signs that you may have a dying tree so you can take care of it before it does damage to your property.

The Tree Has Brown And Brittle Bark Or Cracks

As the tree is dying, the bark becomes loose and starts to fall off of a dying tree. The tree may also have vertical cracks or missing bark. Check for deep splits in the bark that extend into the tree’s wood or internal or external cavities. Cracks often create a weakness that can cause damage in storms or other weather events.

There Are Few Healthy Leaves Left

For deciduous trees, look for branches that lack lush green leaves and show only brown and brittle leaves during the growing season. They will also have dead leaves still clinging well into the winter instead of dropping to the ground. Coniferous evergreens will start to show red, brown or yellow needles or leaves when it’s stressed or dying.

The Tree Has An Abundance Of Dead Wood

A couple of dead branches or dead wood doesn’t necessarily mean you have a dying tree. (Keeping a regular pruning schedule during the dormant season will keep your trees healthy and strong.) However, an increased prevalence of deadwood can indicate that it is a sick or dying tree. In addition, dead trees and branches can fall at any time. This can potentially be a hazard to you and your home.

It’s A Host To Critters And Fungus

Pests such as bark beetles and carpenter ants live in trees that are under stress or are in the process of dying. These pests prefer to live in dead, weakened, or dying hosts. As for fungal or bacterial infections, look for cankers (discolored areas or depressed places on the bark) or mushrooms growing on the ground at the base of a tree or on the tree itself. These are indications of rot in the roots or trunk. In time, decay will extend further within the tree, leading to structural problems.

The Tree Shows Signs Of Root Damage

Since roots run deep underground, determining damage isn’t always easily visible. However, if you’ve had recent excavation or construction projects near the tree, look out for any changes in the tree’s health since that time that might suggest the roots were damaged in the process.

Likewise, if your tree has a shallow and/or partially exposed root system, pay attention to subtle changes that might suggest exposure to extreme elements and poor soil compaction have affected the vitality of the roots. Some signs of root damage include thinning foliage, poor yearly growth, undersized yellow leaves, dead branches, and wilted brown leaves during the growing season.

It Develops A Sudden (Or Gradual) Lean

Odd growth patterns may indicate general weakness or structural imbalance. In general, trees that lean at more than 15 degrees from vertical are an indication of wind or root damage. Large trees that have tipped in intense winds seldom recover and will eventually die.

The Tree Fails The Scratch Test

Right beneath the dry, outer layer of bark is the cambium layer. If the tree still has life, it will be green; it is brown and dry in a dead or dying tree. You can use a fingernail or a pocket knife to remove a small strip of exterior bark to check the cambium layer. You may need to repeat the test over several areas of the tree to determine if the whole tree is dead or just a few branches.

Signs Of Diseased Or Dying Trees

Sometimes the symptoms of tree decay are obvious. Leaves fail to appear in the spring. Large swaths of bark disappear from the trunk. Branches become dry and riddled with holes from wood-boring pests.

But other times, it’s less clear when trees are in poor health. Signs of internal rot include mushrooms growing on brittle bark, branches falling off, and discolored leaves.

Decaying trees can be dangerous, as recent events have shown. Since February, five people have been killed by falling trees in Canton, Lyndeborough, N.H., and most recently, Abington, where a tree crashed onto a passing car, killing the couple inside.

The rotted tree was felled by high winds and snow, authorities said. Residents said the tree had been dead for years and should have been removed. However, town officials have said it is unclear whether it was on private or public land.

Arborists say that trees near the end of their lives are more likely to be knocked over during storms or by significant gusts and should be removed if they pose any danger to property or people.

The responsibility falls on the homeowner to maintain or remove dead or hazardous trees. We recommend that homeowners and business owners survey their property for any obvious signs of decaying trees and call a certified arborist for trees that look as if they may be in distress. Other signs that a tree may be decaying include:

  • Dead leaves clinging to branches of deciduous trees through the winter. On healthy trees, they should fall to the ground.
  • A tree that is beginning to lean, or has bare branches on one side, may have root damage.
  • Vertical cracks, or seams, on the trunk.
  • Areas of smooth wood where bark has fallen off. In healthy trees, new bark would grow in its place.
  • Small branches sprouting from the base of a tree.

How to Save a Dying Tree


It’s a rare event that a tree gets sick. If you’re wondering how to save a dying tree, you’re one of the unlucky, but it’s not a random roll of the dice.

Once established and mature, most trees have the ability to fend off disease, problems associated with insects, and extreme weather conditions.

But once a tree’s health is compromised, it becomes vulnerable to all of the above problems, making it crucial to act as soon as possible. I’ll help you identify the problem and provide some actionable steps you can do to restore your tree to full health.

Learning how to revive a dying tree is the hard part, but we’ve made it easy here. The easy part is the healing process.

First and foremost, you need to confirm that your tree is, in fact, dying. Below this section, I list out the signs of a dying tree that will help you confirm the problem. Second, you need to identify the specific problem.

Sometimes taking the general steps in this section is enough to help the tree get enough strength to ward off the illness itself. Other times you’ll need to apply some specific actions, which we point out below.

These can include pesticides, restoring macronutrients to the soil, and more. In the worst-case scenario, you can consult a professional arborist.

Correct Moisture Problems

Mature trees tend to be able to survive dry seasons or even overly wet ones. However, younger trees can face issues associated with too much or too little water.

Over-watering is often a weather issue and not one you’re creating by watering the lawn. Instead, it has to do with the drainage of the soil around the tree.

Look for water-logging, where the roots of the tree have become soft and soggy. Other signs include the growth of various types of moss and moulds on the dirt around the tree and a lack of grass.

If the soil around the tree is constantly saturated with water, this is a problem, and you need to work on getting water to drain away from that area or introduce more sunlight.

If you believe under-watering is the issue, this is easy to solve with a garden hose or an automatic or alternative sprinkler system. You can even fill up a five-gallon bucket with water and carry it to the tree. Whatever it takes for our friend to feel better!

Don’t Add to Much Mulch

Mulch is not bad, but there’s a common problem where people tend to build up a cone around the tree’s base using mulch. I’m not sure why, but so many people do this. There are a ton of problems associated with this:

  • The roots can’t breathe
  • The roots and trunk can begin to rot
  • Insects, fungi, and bacteria will infest and infect the area

If you’re placing thick layers of mulch around the tree, simply thin that area out. If you’ve allowed mulch to build up around the base of the trunk, you need to remove all of it. The same goes for fertiliser. Don’t build up a mound around your tree! Fertilisers especially can have ill effects, such as “burns” due to the chemical makeup.

Use the Right Fertilizer

Many people just buy an all-purpose fertiliser and chuck it around the tree like mulch. That can be fine, but it can also be deadly. What you really need to do is perform a soil test in the area of the dying tree and find out exactly what macronutrients are missing.

These are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, which are what the fertiliser numbers represent on the front of the bags.

Just like mulch, too much fertiliser can allow all kinds of bad bugs and bacteria to make a home around the roots of your tree, which you can think of as the tree’s mouth. We don’t let bugs make a nest around our mouths any more than we should allow that for a tree.

Direct contact of the fertiliser on the roots can also “burn” them chemically, so go light if you’re sprinkling it that close to the tree.

Prune the Sick Limbs

This is tricky because it’s hard to know how far a disease has spread, but removing visibly diseased areas from an otherwise healthy tree is possible. By pruning limbs or even sections of bark and trunk, you can stop the illness from spreading.

Make sure, after doing this, that you sterilise your shears, saws, and knives you used to perform the job.

Make sure you research how to prune the type of tree you’re working with. Various pruning techniques are appropriate for specific species of trees. Severe pruning can send the tree’s system into shock, and it’s already struggling, so please take care when doing this.

Can a Dead Tree Be Revived?


Can a half-dead tree be saved? Yes, that’s basically what we’ve been talking about. But can a dead tree be revived, as in a fully dead tree?

Sometimes you can do your best and experience new leaf and branch growth starting lower near the base, spawning off of new roots or a revived root system. But in general, no, you won’t revive the entirety of the tree.

Causes of a Tree Dying

We mentioned above about over and under-watering, a lack of soil nutrients, mulching and fertiliser issues, and disease. Established trees are resistant to most everything, including these problems, except for the worst diseases.

Here are a few common diseases you may encounter:

  • American Chestnut Blight – Caused by the pathogen cryphonectria parasitic, it can cause sunken cankers, orange-coloured spots along branches or the trunk, and even cause yellow spores to be emitted. Professionals can apply a soil compress cure or a hypovirulence transfer.
  • Powdery Mildew – Caused by fungi in the order Erysiphales, it starts on the leaves of the lower branches and works its way up the tree from there. It grows a white, powdery layer over fruits and leaves, eventually turning grey and black. Fungicides like triademefon and propiconazole will end this disease.
  • Sudden Oak Death – Caused by a pathogen named Phytophthora ramorum, the most outward symptom is that the bark of the trunk will split and begin weeping a dark brown sap. Eventually, the leaves and newer shoots lose their colour and wilt. The five-week treatment consists of spraying a phosphonate-based surfactant on the trunk.
  • Dutch Elm Disease – Caused by the ascomycete microfungi spread by the American bark beetle, this disease spreads to other trees quickly through the root system underground. Symptoms include wilting and yellowing of branches and leaves starting at the crown and moving down to the base of the trunk. The course of action is to prune the infected limbs and apply a fungicidal injection.
  • Fire Blight – Caused by erwinia amylovora, this disease affects fruit trees mainly, making them take the appearance of a burnt tree. Affected trees will shrink in size and become blackened. Professionals suggest pruning affected areas as early as noticed and spraying the tree with antibiotics like Terramycin and streptomycin.

Tips to Keep Your Tree From Dying

Here are some additional tips to boost the health of your tree in addition to those mentioned above. During the dry winter months, trees require little to no nitrogen but still need phosphorous and potassium.

Consider creating a liquid solution of 0-20-20 fertiliser and watering it directly to the tree’s roots.

Try to avoid running over exposed tree roots with your lawnmower. Cutting the tops of the roots down creates injuries that invite bacteria and fungi into the tree’s system. In the same vein, avoid using weed killers near your trees.

Once you prune an ill tree, make sure to sterilise the equipment before working on another plant tree, or you risk introducing the disease to more trees. Also, watch out for water-logging in areas with poor drainage, and the same goes for over-watering on your part.

Too much mulch around your trees means there won’t be enough drainage, and the roots won’t have access to air easily.

Is My Tree Dying or Dormant?

Obviously, a dormant tree is not dead, just in a state of low growth and preservation, similar to hibernation. However, it’s easy to confuse the two due to the most outward symptoms of both being similar, in which leaves wilt, dry up, and fall away.

If you’re trying to determine how your tree is doing, and it’s late autumn, or during the winter, you either need to wait until the spring to make a determination or hire an arborist to visit and run some tests. However, there are a few small tests you can run yourself.

See if the branches will still bend without snapping or cracking. If it does break, check its inside to see if it is totally dry or if there are signs of life within. You can scratch away the bark of the branch and see if there is any greenish growth beneath.

Consult an Arborist

In a worst-case scenario, you can contact an arborist, which is basically a tree doctor. They can run tests on specific trees, identify at-risk trees, spray with preventative chemicals, and brace your trees for added support.

They can also help with pruning, alert you about symptoms of diseases spreading in the area, inform you about the laws in your county for deforestation and using chemicals, and can even let you know if you have any valuable trees you could sell for lumber.

They’re also qualified to climb up your trees, use heavy equipment when removing dead trees, and more.

If you’re unsure about anything but value your trees too much to stand losing them, then definitely consult a local arborist.

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