plant care, sustainable, tree care

Is My Tree Dead, or Just Playin’ Possum?

Several months ago a friend asked if she should cut down her dead tree or wait to see if the leaves come back out in the spring……  When I repeated her question, as any good therapist would do, she recognized what she’d said was not what she’d really meant.  Her real question: IS MY TREE DEAD, or is it just playin’ possum?

While viewing the change in season is enjoyable, seeing a change in LIFE of a favorite shade tree can be devastating.  The most severe drought our area of Texas has possibly ever experienced has pushed plants to their limit with many dead, dying, or distressed.  Record flooding in other areas of the country can be just as detrimental.  So how do you know if a tree is dead?  Can it be resurrected if it’s had a near-death experience?  Here are a few things to look for if you suspect your tree is on its last…um….trunk and the steps to take if you want to keep it from becoming firewood.

green is good! (photo from blog by April Demes at

TEST IT:  Arborists are trained to help keep your tree alive.  But if it is already dead, no reason to pay them to give you the bad news.  Where the problems appear can tell you a lot.  When there’s thinning on top like a middle-aged guy, the problem could be severe.  However, if just a few lower branches show distress, your patient might still make it.  Try to break one or two twigs off.  When the twig gives way easily with a “crack,” it is dead.  You might do this in several spots in the crown, breaking twigs progressing up to branches until you find a live one.  If you don’t have luck after a number of tries, use a sharp implement to scrape away an area on the trunk.  Don’t cut deep, but gouge till you see greenish tissue.  Brown or tan dry pulp, no matter how far you stab, means the tree’s most likely a goner.

TRIM IT:  Trees don’t do comb-overs.  Never seen a man who can sport one effectively either, for that matter…. If you’ve found signs of life somewhere on your tree, prune away the dead weight.  Branches that are not actively helping are hurting the plant, so relieving your stressed tree will allow it to concentrate on getting well.  Insects should not be a problem if the temperatures stay cool, thus pruning paint is unnecessary.

TREAT IT:  Winter is when tree roots are active, not top growth.  Use this time to pamper the roots so they can better support the rest of the tree when the leaves return in spring.  A good drink in autumn – whether from a soaking rain or a soaker hose – is advised if your gauge or weatherman says you’re still behind in rainfall.   As tempting as it might be, do NOT fertilize unless you are using something for the roots only.  That means anything that puts nitrogen (the 1st number in the 3 digit ratio on the bag) into the soil will put additional stress on the tree.  The best thing we can do for a declining plant is give it a warm blanket.  A mulch blanket, that is.

HIT: blanket your tree with love, and nothing shows love like a blanket of mulch for the winter!
MYTH: trees don't need a human touch.

Trees, like mothers, give us benefits we often do not realize until they are gone.  A little TLC to return the favor is not too much to ask, is it?  Take the time to get your trees healthy and generations to come will thank you for your generosity.



3 thoughts on “Is My Tree Dead, or Just Playin’ Possum?”

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