This spring, as the trees in my backyard began sprouting lush green leaves, one big, beautiful oak remained bare and brown—it was dead. That meant it needed to be cut down—and soon, before it toppled onto our house.
Dead or distressed trees, I learned, can be extremely dangerous. In addition to the risk of the whole tree falling, branches can drop off and damage roofs or cars parked in the driveway. These risks increase in spring, when storms with high winds and lightning are more common.
Making matters worse, trees can be sick for a while without homeowners noticing, since some distress is invisible.
Worried about one of your trees? Here’s how to spot the signs that it could be sick, and how to find someone to inspect and possibly remove it.
How to tell if a tree is dying (or dead)
Many things can afflict trees, including disease caused by drought, overcrowding or root damage, and insects that bore into the wood or eat the leaves.
Here's how to check a tree to see if it's in trouble:
Scratch the surface. Use a knife or your fingernail to scratch one of the tree’s twigs. If it’s green and moist under the surface, the tree is alive. If it’s brown and brittle, test out a few more twigs, but that may be a sign of distress, says Adam Jensen, district manager for the Davey Tree Expert Company.
Inspect the roots. Look at the base of the tree and check for soft spots, decay, mushrooms, or other fungi.
Check the tree’s support. Examine the area where the trunk and roots meet at the surface of the soil, known as the collar. Look for signs of decay, such as bark that’s falling off or broken.
Scan for cracks or splits in the trunk. This could indicate that the tree is structurally weak. If you spot trunk swelling, an area of bark overgrowth, it could be a sign of decay.
Check for holes. Check for large or small holes in the trunk or elsewhere that could be caused by wood-boring insects or bark beetles, adds Beth Brantley, technical support specialist at Bartlett Tree Experts.
Look at the leaves. Leaves also reveal a lot about a tree’s health, Andersen says. Most trees’ leaves change color and fall off during the fall, but a tree may be in distress if it loses leaves in spring or summer, or if the leaves don’t change color and just fall off. Tattered leaves that look like they’ve been chewed also signal something is wrong.
Monitor the tree's growth. Does the tree look like it’s growing? If not, it’s best to get it inspected, Andersen says. Sometimes trees that don’t get enough nutrients stop growing. “That one takes a little bit of time to discover, but if this is something that you're looking out of your kitchen window at year after year and you're just noticing that it just isn't doing well, that could be an indicator,” she explains. Any branch that looks like it’s dead or dying should be cause for concern, Brantley adds, especially if it's close to your home or parked cars.
Will a tree fall down? How to tell
You can't entirely predict when a tree will fall down, but you can learn to spot indications of elevated risk.
“A dead tree might not look like a danger,” Jensen says. “But once it’s determined that a tree is declining or no longer living, it’s a safety hazard, even if it doesn’t have hanging branches or a leaning trunk to show for it.”
Stormy conditions heighten the risk of a falling tree. High winds or lightning could strike the tree, causing large branches to fall, while heavy rains could soak the ground and weaken its supports.
“In the spring, the ground is often saturated, and a tree with a compromised root system may not have enough below-ground support to hold the tree in place during an extreme weather event,” Brantley says. “Keep in mind the additional weight that leaves provide to the tree, too.”
Still, Jensen says, the scary thing is that trees remain unpredictable.
“There’s no way to tell if a storm coming up next week or next year will lead them to their breaking point, or if they’ll come down on their own,” he says.
Should you get a tree inspection?
If you’re worried about a tree, it’s a good idea to get it inspected by a professional, who can advise whether or not the tree should be cut down or pruned. Tree removal can be costly, averaging $750, according to Home Advisor, so hiring someone experienced and knowledgeable is key.
“Hiring an unqualified arborist may cost homeowners in the long run,” Jensen says. “An uninsured and inadequately trained arborist can damage trees and homes, leaving homeowners with the bill. Poor work can result in mistakes that decrease home value and may involve purchasing new trees.”
Before hiring anyone to remove a tree, check that the pro is accredited by the Tree Care Industry Association, he says. The group has an online tool to search for professionals in your area. Also, check that that company is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.
Make sure the company is insured and is willing to provide references, Brantley suggests.
“Ask for a detailed, written estimate documenting the work they will perform and how it will be performed,” she says.
Never cut down a large tree yourself or ask anyone else to if they’re not a professional arborist, she emphasizes: “Use professional tree companies that promote safety and science and have the proper equipment.”