Monday, April 18, 2011

How Can You Tell If a Tree or Shrub is Dead or Alive?

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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.

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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.


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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....

in the garden.... 


Words and Photos Property of In the Garden Blog Team, In the Garden

34 comments:

  1. That caveat on the scrape test is important up here in CT - clethra and buddleia in particular look dead sometimes well into June, and scraping reveals nothing. It is reassuring when you do find a bit of green under a dead looking husk!

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  2. This is very helpful information, Tina. I've been watching a couple plants that I've been worried about since last fall. The two hydrangea paniculatas are finally sprouting some new growth, thankfully, but the bargain azalea I got last summer still looks dead to me. I'm going to give it awhile, though, and keep my fingers crossed that's it's just slow to start greening up this spring.

    So sorry about your Japanese maple; I would be very sad to lose one of those.

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  3. Yep, that's our test too. Some of our shrubs are slow to leaf out, so this is a great way to see if they are still viable. Great post! :)

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  4. Cyndy, Yes indeed! The green helps but one can't always be sure hence the caveat. Glad you gave us a good example and glad spring is reaching CT.

    Rose, Hydrangeas can be tricky and I've been watching a few of mine too. It might still be a bit early now as I know some of mine haven't leafed out. But try the scrape and if it is green-yahoo!

    Nancy, It can really be reassuring to see that green-or not such as in my case with the one tree. But hey, that's gardening.

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  5. Ms. Doris taught me this trick...so sorry about your Maple...but like you said, "That's Gardening!"

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  6. Great post Tina. I have a new Redbud I am getting ready to do a scratch test on....2 of the 3 are finally leafing out, but one....not so sure.
    Sorry about your Japanese Maple.

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  7. I try not to give up hope on a plant until after the growing season is really going just in case they come back from the roots. Crape myrtles are famous for dying back then re-sprouting new trunks. It always stinks to lose the old trunks though.

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  8. Re: Poppies....these are the red breadseed poppies Tina. Don't buy anymore I am going to have tons and tons of seeds in a matter of weeks and will be happy to send you some. I plant mine in the garden in Nov...let me know :)

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  9. This post came at just the right time. I have two things I'm wondering about right now - one is a heather plant that hasn't put any new growth on yet this season. All the heathers around us are in bloom, so I'm skeptical. Also, I just planted three small blueberry bushes that looked green and happy when I put them out, but now seem to be loosing their green -too soon for them maybe. Thanks for this very useful post!

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  10. Great info Tina! Strange thing, our two J. Maples keep their dead leaves for most of the winter. They drop the dead sometime around Jan or so. I use the leaves to make fake bird nests in the hanging porch plants. This keeps the wrens and finches out of them...

    Company departs tomorrow. Sure has been funing entertaining the men folk...

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  11. This post was a great reminder for me. We planted a bare root blackberry bush and it's literally a stick in the mud. I'm thinking it's dead so I'll use this scratch test as one way to find out.

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  12. Sorry about you J Maple. I know I sure was sad when I lost my J Maple you bought me. It came alive last spring just like it should have and looked so great but then the leaves just turned brown and dried up almost over night. I cut it off and left it, hoping it would come back from the roots but I do not have a lot of hope for it. But I have not completly given up just yet.

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  13. Good how to post. We did this to a redbud one spring. Pronounced it dead and obtained another one. When we pulled back the mulch to dig up the dead tree, we found sprouts. So, we cut off the dead part, planted the new tree in a different spot and now have two redbuds instead of one. Sometimes, you get a surprise!

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  14. Such good information Tina!! Sometimes I really don't have the patience I should to wait and see if things are dead or alive. :) Now I can do the scrape test!

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  15. Hi all.
    Great post Tina. I have an apple tree that is acting strange. There are leaves on a lower limb & some on a limb at the top. Opposite sides of the tree. Wonder?
    Was digging out crazy rose & the ants are eating me up. I put some stuff on my feet but they are still stinging. This stuff keeps blisters from forming. I use it on the kids. lol

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  16. I'm so sorry about your Japanese Maple. Helpful post. We all get impatient waiting for spring growth. I'm waiting for some tropical shrubs to show signs of life. Sometimes when I've given up, suddenly in late May there they are are, tiny shoots near the roots!

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  17. Tina,

    I did not know this trick, thanks for sharing it. Guess it would not work on or banana stump I cut down last fall, think since it looks like mush it is dead.

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  18. Darla, Yes indeed! It's okay. Opportunity for a viburnum in its spot now.

    Janet, It's not sounding too good for that redbud. Let us know if the scrape test worked.

    Dave, I totally agree! I lost two of three trunks on a 'Muskogee'. Not too happy either but maybe the new ones will grow stronger.

    Darla, Save some for me. I'd love some! The dames rocket is doing well. I haven't planted them in the garden yet but once they get bigger.

    Jen, Give the blueberries some time. Can't help you with the heather as I never have luck with it here.

    Skeeter, I am sure your company is sure enjoying the BB&B. Have fun!

    Alexis, I have two blackberries that are sticks in the mud. I think give it a bit more time and maybe just maybe it will leaf out. But it would be nice to see green now.

    Mom, It's ok. Maybe your J. maple got a virus or something. Need to get you another focal tree for between those two windows when I'm up there. Let me know if it comes back.

    GOSS, That's one thing in gardening-never give up hope!


    Linda, It is a good tool I use often here. Unfortunately.

    Lola, It sounds like your apple tree may be in trouble or just slow to leaf out. Let's hope for the best. Rest up those feet. Durned ants!

    NellJean, Those late signs of growth are such a joy!

    Randy, No, it will not work. But you just wait. You can't kill the musa bajoo. It will sprout soon and you'll have babies. Unless you are talking about the red banana? If so, that is most definitely a goner. Good luck though. I'll be looking for those seeds for you. If you lived close I'd share seedlings with you. I have quite a few but I guess we'll settle for seeds.

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  19. Oh my, I just this afternoon found I had leaf rollers on my cannas. I patiently unrolled each leaf but didn't know what I was looking for. The leaves sure looked icky, black & slimy. I sure hope they go away.
    Got any ideas? HELP.

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  20. Lola, Most of the time I do like you and remove the little worms by hand. Squish them or put them in a bucket of soapy water. I'm not sure if there is an insecticide for them but you can look at the local hardware store. Just be sure to get one that says on the label it takes care of canna leaf rollers and follow the directions carefully.

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  21. That's exactly what my Japanese Maple did last year. Strange that one of yours died and the other is still fine. Today I dug out a Hydrangea that died this winter, I waited to see if it would leaf out, never did and the branches were very brittle. The upside is new planting space :)

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  22. I am often asked to diagnose plant problems over the phone, and I always recommend the scrape test in determining the living and the dead. Only we call it the thumbnail test and encourage customers to scrape it with their thumbnail to search for green tissue.

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  23. Good to know info Tina! I have had the concern many a time and this is a helpful tip. :)

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  24. Great post Tina. The scrape test is a good one. Some of those woody plants are really good at playing dead!

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  25. Sorry for the maple that didn't make it. I had an Acer viridis dissectum that made it through one winter but not the next, so sad. No leaves yet on my cherries and honey locusts, but they're just a bit late to leaf out, so hopefully they won't need a scrape test.

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  26. I used that test on my Pomegranates last year when I apparently let them dry out in their pots before they normally would have dropped their leaves. A few months into winter I was literally dumping them into the compost pile and decided to give the bark a little scrape just to see...and 'yay' they actually were alive!

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  27. Ian, It can be most reassuring to see that green. So glad you did-before it was too late!

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  28. I have two double flowering plum that I bought from the same place at the same time and planted 10 ft apart. One leafed out and bloomed, the other one still has not leafed out and it"s almost July! It shows green when I peel away a tiny bud, and it's green in the scrape test. What the heck is going on with this thing? Is it dormant?

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  29. Tarrah, Without seeing the plums it would be hard for me to diagnose the problem but I do not think the plum is dormant if the other one is leafed out. You don't say where you are so I'm not sure when is the right time for it to leaf out. If you are up north it might be a bit delayed. Since there is still green there is hope. Here is what I would do-two things. I'd wait at least another month and see if it will leaf out. In the meantime dig around the tree a bit to see if there is a root problem and also get a soil test right away. In fact, take soil samples from around both trees but have them tested separately. While you are taking the soil samples look for issues that may affect the roots. Such as being rootbound or root rot or even fungi. This will be a start. Most of the time trees and shrubs have issues due to outside influences and we need to identify the problem. Not leafing out is a sympton of something bigger that you may need to look at. If you have a horticultural agent or tree agent in your area you might give them a call too. Good luck and let me know what you find out.

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  30. Thank you so much from Perth, Western Australia. I just did your scrape test and now I know that my South African Tulip tree is not dead.

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  31. I had a professional grow company plant seedling trees last spring . The only problem is my flowering pink dogwood. It has only a few leaves and flowers on it. Last spring it did well. I keep waiting for it to do better but.....Any ideas?

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    1. Hi Karen! Very good question about your dogwood and I definitely have some ideas. You said you planted it last spring or had a company plant it. That means it was either in a pot or balled and burlapped and it most likely did well last spring. Here is the tricky part and I have especially seen this problem with dogwoods this very year. All trees and shrubs when dug whether in a pot or in balled and burlapped state usually what they have what they need stored the roots they have in that pot or that they dug up. Those stores will usually be good enough to get the tree or shrub thru that first grow season and the unwary will not think anything is wrong until the next year when the tree either fails to leaf out or leafs out poorly. The probably cause of this is that the plant did not build up enough stores to be able to put out new growth the following year and used up all of its stores last year. This can happen when a plant is not planted correctly, not watered correctly, and mainly not taken care of property the first year or it just might be that the plant was planted in the wrong spot. This would cause the tree to perhaps not root properly. When this happens the tree will use up its stores pretty quickly but will not be able to build up stores of food and nutrients in order to leaf out full the following year. The tree will still appear green under the bark because it is still alive and still using up those nutrients but in all likelihood it is not going to be able to leaf out. Putting out a new coat of leaves each year is very taxing on a tree-especially a deciduous one like a dogwood. I know because I bought four that are to this day still green under the bark but which are in fact quite dead because they do not have the strength and stores to leaf out. I returned all four to Lowes which is where I purchased mine. Additionally, I dug up a chaste tree and planted it last year. It did well and weathered the transplant pretty good but never leafed out-even tho chaste trees leaf out late this is much too late. I checked the bark and it was indeed green but I decided to pull it out of the ground and check the roots. Guess what? The roots had not taken so the tree in effect could not build up reserves to leaf out. It was effectively dead and I have replaced it with a tougher tree. I believe this very issue to be the problem with your dogwood. If you gently tug on the tree and sway it back and forth see how much give it has. Use your best judgement and ultimately only you can decide if you need to give the tree a bit longer but I think by mid June (for most of the US) is plenty late enough for a tree to leaf out. You do, however, say your dogwood has some leaves. That is encouraging and depending on how much value it has for you you have to decide how long you leave it in the ground. With good weather, regular watering properly, it might be able to build up stores for a comeback. I cannot say whether it will or not, only time will tell. So, bottomline short, make your choice and if you still have a guarantee you might check with that company and see if they have a guarantee. If you do dig it up or pull it out you might find a root problem. Those roots can still be alive but if not growing well the tree will not be anchored and that will be your problem. I know it was mine this very year. There is a time you move on and each gardener will have to decide it for themselves. Let me know if this makes sense and what you find out. Also, what part of the country are you located in? Was your tree balled and burlapped or potted when planted? I find balled and burlapped can have more issues because they are usually only recently dug and lose a great deal of roots in the dig and transplant process. Very tough for them especially in the spring. Good luck!

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    2. Sorry for the typos. I am talking as I type and made a few errors. For some reason Blogger is not allowing me to edit my comment so please forgive my poor grammar! Read past the extra words and mistyped words-ie property should be properly, etc. Thanks!

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