How Can You Tell If a Tree or Shrub is Dead or Alive?
There is beauty even in fading flowers. Sometimes even more beauty than when they are at their peak. Soon these tulips will be long gone and nothing but a memory. Time passes by quickly in a garden. Well today's post is not about tulips but about shrubs and trees and how you can tell if they too are gone.
Oftentimes I wonder if a tree is dead or alive. This question usually comes up during winter when a tree is dormant. It is a tricky question in the winter or early spring when the tree has not yet leafed out. How can you tell if a tree or shrub has died? The way I can tell is to do the 'scrape test'. Here we have two identical Japanese maples. Both were purchased and planted in the year 2008. Neither tree was moved and had similar growing conditions but I had a concern for one of the trees. Last fall when most trees lost their leaves the tree in the below picture did not lose its leaves. The leaves simply dried up and hung onto the tree all season. I didn't think anything of it until recently and thought I should check to see if the tree was still alive. It is an easy thing to figure out even when the tree is dormant. You simply scrape a small area of the trunk to look for the green cambium layer just under the outer bark. I've never seen this method harm the tree and it is always a good indicator to tell whether or not your tree is dead or alive with a caveat. Do you see the green around the scrape on the above pictured Japanese maple? It is clearly alive.
Now look at this tree. Aside from the fact the outer bark is brown (typical of most trees and shrubs in the winter when the bark can be shades of brown, gray, black, or green) there is NO green in or around the scrape I made into this bark. The tree is clearly dead. It is possible it could come back from the roots but it was not worth it to me to keep the tree in the garden so I pulled it and threw it away. The scrape method always works but there are some caveats.
My daughter had a multi-trunked river birch tree in her garden and she was not sure if it was alive. We did the scrape test and found two of the three trunks were dead. When you have an outcome like this you can do one of two things. You can either prune out the dead trunks and keep the one trunk. Most likely the river birch will resprout new trunks. Or you can simply remove the whole tree. This is what Liz decided since she had paid good money for this big tree and it was still under warranty.
I hope you never have to do a scrape test in your garden but I find it is a handy tool in mine because sometimes trees and shrubs die. I have to tell you all I cannot think of any reason my little Japanese maple died but it did. You never know when you have to investigate these things....
in the garden....
Caveat: Even if all trunks of a tree or shrub appear to be dead it is possible the plant could resprout from the roots. Not only will river birches do this but crepe myrtles are notorious for resprouting as well. If you are not sure of a valued tree or shrub's viability wait until June or July to see if the plant will show any new growth, or even get a professional to evaluate the plant before you rip it out....
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