How to Tell if a Tree is Dead or Dormant: 3 Simple Tests

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You may have recently planted a dormant tree and might be filled with uncertainty, wondering, “Is my tree dead or dormant?” For new tree owners, distinguishing between a dead tree and one that’s merely dormant can be a daunting task. Fear not! In this guide, we will equip you with essential techniques to differentiate between a dead and dormant tree, helping you put your worries to rest and gain confidence in assessing your tree’s health. For more information on how to properly plant a bare root fruit tree, check out our guide.

How to tell if a tree is dead.

  1. The Scratch Test: This simple yet effective technique helps determine a tree’s vitality by checking for the presence of living tissue beneath the bark. To perform the scratch test, use your fingernail or a small knife to gently scratch a small section of the bark on the trunk or a branch. If you reveal green, moist tissue underneath, the tree is alive. Conversely, if you see brown, dry tissue, it might indicate a dead tree. However, don’t rely on just one spot; test a few more locations to get a more accurate assessment of the tree’s health.
  2. Bud Inspection: Observing the condition of the buds on the branches can give you valuable insight into the tree’s health. While dormant trees might not exhibit fully-formed buds, you should be able to identify small, healthy-looking buds waiting to grow. If the tree lacks buds or they appear shriveled, dry, and lifeless, it might be dead. Keep in mind that some tree species have inconspicuous buds, so it’s essential to be familiar with the specific tree’s characteristics when inspecting for buds.
  3. Flexibility test: The flexibility test helps gauge a tree’s health by assessing the brittleness of its branches. To conduct the test, carefully bend a small branch on the tree. A living tree’s branches are generally flexible and won’t snap easily. If the branch is brittle and breaks with little effort, it could indicate that the tree is dead. However, it’s crucial to consider factors such as tree species and recent weather conditions when interpreting the results, as some trees may have more brittle branches than others, and extreme weather could temporarily affect the branch’s flexibility.

Determining if a newly planted bareroot tree is dying, dead, or dormant can be challenging, but by performing the scratch test, bud inspection, and flexibility test, you can assess its health.

Your tree is alive! Now what?

Once you’ve determined that your tree is alive, follow these steps to ensure it remains healthy and thrives:

  1. Watering: Provide your tree with adequate water, especially during the initial growth stages and in dry or hot conditions. Water newly planted trees thoroughly after planting and continue to water them deeply once a week, providing about an inch of water each time. As the tree becomes established, you can gradually reduce the frequency of watering.
  2. Mulching: Spread a layer of organic mulch (such as wood chips, shredded bark, or compost) around your tree’s base, maintaining a gap of a few inches between the mulch and the trunk. Mulching helps retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature, all of which contribute to a healthy tree.
  3. Pruning: Pruning a newly planted bare root fruit tree is essential to ensure the top is in balance with the roots and to promote strong, healthy growth. If the tree top is disproportionately larger than the roots, they will not be able to sustain the moisture loss from the leaves. New trees may have been pruned before you received them but if not you’ll want to do this before or right after planting.
  4. Fertilizing: Nitrogen fertilizer is not recommended because it can cause the tree to put on excessive top growth before the roots have had time to establish. On the other hand, mineral-based soil amendments to balance the PH and any soil deficiencies is recommended.
  5. Mycorrhizal amendments: Mycorrhizal benefits newly planted trees by forming a symbiotic relationship with roots, enhancing nutrient and water absorption. This leads to improved growth, stress resistance, and drought tolerance. Mycorrhizal fungi also unlock soil nutrients and improve soil structure, promoting better aeration and drainage. These amendments contribute to faster establishment, increased survival rates, and ultimately, healthier and more resilient trees.
  6. Proper planting: Ensure your tree is planted at the correct depth and in a location that provides adequate sunlight, space, and well-draining soil. This will allow for proper root development and prevent future issues, such as root rot or poor growth.
  7. Protect the trunk: Guard the trunk against damage from lawn equipment, animals, or weather by installing a tree guard or protective barrier. Damage to the trunk can weaken the tree and make it more susceptible to diseases or pests.

By following these steps and providing your tree with proper care, you can promote its health, encourage robust growth, and enjoy its beauty for years to come.

Dormant Trees

Why trees go dormant: Trees go dormant as a natural response to colder temperatures and shorter days in the winter months. This process allows them to conserve energy and protect themselves from damage due to freezing temperatures. Dormancy is a survival strategy that ensures trees can withstand harsh conditions and resume growth when favorable conditions return.

Factors affecting dormancy break: Several factors can affect when a tree will break dormancy, including:

  • Chill hours: The number of hours a tree spends in temperatures between 32°F and 45°F during the winter. Some species require a certain number of chill hours to leaf out.
  • Weather conditions: Warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours in spring often signal trees to break dormancy. Unseasonal fluctuations in temperature can impact the timing of dormancy breaks.
  • Tree species: Different species have varying dormancy requirements and timelines. Some species may naturally break dormancy earlier or later than others.
  • Tree age and health: Younger or less healthy trees may take longer to emerge from dormancy compared to mature, established trees in good health.

Be Patient with Bareroot Trees: Trees that look dead but aren’t may just be dormant. Bareroot trees, kept in cold storage before shipment, may take longer to emerge from dormancy compared to mature established trees. This is because they are often shipped when dormant and require time to acclimate to their new environment. Certain species, particularly Hickory, Pecan, Black Walnut, Pawpaw, Persimmon, and Mulberry are known for their slower dormancy break. Exercise patience and monitor your tree closely, providing proper care to encourage its healthy growth and development.


If a tree has no leaves is it dead?

A tree without leaves may not necessarily be dead. It could be dormant or experiencing stress due to environmental factors. Perform the scratch test, bud inspection, and flexibility test to determine if the tree is alive.

How to tell if tree is rotten inside?

To identify internal rot, look for signs like fungal growth, hollow areas, or soft, crumbly wood. If you’re unsure, consult an arborist for a professional evaluation.

How to save a dying tree?

To save a dying tree, ensure proper watering, provide adequate mulch, prune dead or damaged branches, and treat any pests or diseases. Consult a professional arborist if necessary.

Can a dead tree have green leaves?

A dead tree cannot produce green leaves. If a tree has green leaves, it’s still alive, even if it’s experiencing stress or decline.

How to revive a dead tree?

Reviving a dead tree is not possible, as dead trees cannot regenerate or regrow. However, if a tree is struggling but still alive, you can try to save it by identifying and addressing underlying issues such as improper watering, nutrient deficiencies, or pest and disease problems.


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