How to Tell if a Tree is Dormant or Dead in Winter

Trees bring a host of benefits to our yards and property with their beautiful foliage and unique aesthetic. During the winter season our trees get a chance to relax and rest for a while. This dormant season is a time for them to conserve energy and prepare for the active growing season of spring. Sometimes the bare branches and lack of leaves can cause a dormant tree to look like a dead tree. How can you tell if your tree is dormant or dead in winter? There a few simple methods to check for signs of life.

Here’s how to tell the difference between a dormant tree and one that is sick or dying.

  1. The visual test. The most basic test is to simply look at your tree for signs of life. Are there any open wounds? Does your tree have fungus growing on the trunk or branches? Are there large cracks in the bark?

    Trees in dormancy will have small leaf buds even in winter. These green buds are signs your tree is alive and ready to burst into bloom come spring. A lack of buds or buds that appear shriveled are indications of a dead branch. Check several branches to determine the fate of the tree. Another sign of a dead or dying tree is leaves that hung on well past the time other similar trees dropped their leaves in the fall.

  2. The twig test. If you can reach one, grab a twig or small branch and break it. Use your fingertip or a pocketknife to lightly scratch a small spot on one of the tree’s twigs. The layer immediately under the bark should be moist and bright green. If the wood is green, your tree is good. Is it dry and brown? Did the twig break easily? If so, that is a good sign that the tree is dying. Test other twigs from different parts of the tree, as it could just be that one section of the tree is in trouble, and not the whole tree. If a majority of the twigs are brown, dry, and break easily, you should consider having a professional Austin arborist like Capitol Tree Care remove the tree, as it likely poses a threat to your property.
  3. The scratch test. If your tree is too large to reach a twig, scratch the bark on the tree trunk. If you see green wood underneath the bark, this is a good sign. Tree bark actually experiences a similar growth cycle as tree leaves, with bark replacing itself as often as it grows. If your tree trunk shed layers and didn’t replace them, this could be a sign of tree decline. Look for cracks in the trunk, which is another symptom arborists look for on a dying tree. If you see this warning sign, give Capitol Tree Care a call at (512) 913-6833. Our experts can determine if the tree is a risk that needs to be removed to protect your property and those around you.