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How can I tell if my tree is dead or dormant?

One of the questions that we get a lot this time of year from our clients is, “How can I tell if my tree is dead or dormant?”



It is natural for trees to drop their leaves during the fall and under times of stress such as drought. St. Louis deciduous trees will go dormant in the winter to conserve energy, giving them the ability to last without food or water until the spring season. This dormancy is seen by the tree shedding leaves and halting growth. The majority of trees will drop their leaves from the crown downward. Typically, what you don’t want to see is when the leaves turn brown, but never shed.



To really be able to tell if your tree is dead or dormant is by checking the stems. You can check the stems by performing a “Scratch Test”. To do this, you’ll need a smooth knife, a sharp pruning tool, or your fingernail depending on the shape and size of the tree.

Lightly scratch a small piece of the bark away from the tree trunk, on the branch you desire to test. You want to look at the tissue behind the bark for signs of life. Healthy stems are firm and green on the inside. Stems that are brittle and crack easily are likely dead. If the stem is mushy, it is likely very dead. Green hues and dampness are also good signs. Dry, brittle, and brown bark indicates that the tree is dead.

Deniszczuk, Mike _ dead spruce 11.9.17

Another clue to look for is rotting or decaying. Sometimes this is obvious, in the case of open wounds or soft spots. Other times it may require an arborist, botanist, or horticulturist to determine. Wood boring insects are generally easy to find when you peel away the outer bark layer of the tree.


So what do you do if you determine that your tree is still alive, but is suffering? A plant that has sentimental value to you, or is an expensive or rare specimen may be worth saving!

If you check the stems and they appear dead, but the roots are still viable, there may still be hope. You can cut the stems back a little bit a time to find a part where they may still have life. When you do see pliable stems, stop cutting.

Prune the dead wood from the tree as frequently as you see it appear. You want to make sure that all nutrients that the tree has are able to go where needed. This includes removing suckers and water sprouts.

If it is feasible, you’ll also want to reconsider & change where the tree is planted. Soil conditions, shade vs. sun, and other environmental factors may not be favorable to the specimen. Transplanting should almost always be done in the fall. But remember, transplanting trees causes undue stress and generally you'll need to get the tree healthy again before it can be moved unless it is truly a location issue. So proper diagnosis is key.

Trees are similar to humans when they get “sick”. If your tree has significant stress, it’s more susceptible to pests and disease. Trimming (opening a new wound) will force it to take more energy to heal itself. So, if possible, leave a stressed tree alone.


If you’re positive that your tree is dead, it’s important to remove it immediately. Dead or dying trees are hazardous because they are liable to fall over on a house or other object. They also bring in secondary invaders (pests), which makes the surrounding trees more prone to infestation.

Never try to cut down a large tree alone. It can be extremely dangerous to cut down a tree that has been compromised, and there are trained professionals that can help.

Lambrecht residence - remove_replace tree


At Dowco, we are plant lovers, so we try to salvage trees and shrubs as much as possible. However, even with all the TLC in the world, sometimes it is not practical to save a badly damaged tree. In this case, we recommend starting over again. Typically, we won’t plant the same specimen in the same location, because the factors were not right.

If you’re not sure if your tree is dead or dormant, Dowco can help! Our horticulturists on staff will be happy to come out for a free consultation to determine if your tree is dead or dormant.


Dowco is the premier provider of lawn care and landscape maintenance services. We are committed to improving the quality of your life so that you can spend time doing the things you want to do! Our full service menu includes weekly maintenance of your property, plant health visits, and modern site enhancements.


(636) 532-9192

Topics: St. Louis Locals Winter Season Maintenance Tree & Shrub Care Dowco Specific

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