Is my tree dead or just dormant?

When leaves fall from deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, and maples, it can be hard to decipher if the now-bare tree is dormant for the winter – or if it has died.

In this article, we will go over the basics of how to tell if your tree is dead or just dormant for the winter, what issues you should look out for, and when to call in a professional.

Keep reading to learn if your tree is a hazard or if it is just “resting” for the winter.
The brown inside of a broken tree branch surrounded by snow.

What is Dormancy?

Before we can go over the details of how to check on your tree, it’s important to understand what it means when a tree becomes “dormant.”

While most conifer trees (though not all – see bald cypress trees) hold on to their needles throughout the winter months, we know that deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall. Dropping the leaves allows the tree to rest from producing leaves and other forms of above-ground growth until spring.

Trees going dormant during colder weather can use their energy to focus on root growth (one of the reasons we encourage you to plant trees in the fall), as well as on protecting themselves from cold weather and surviving despite the lack of available water.

While we usually refer to winter as a time of dormancy, trees can go dormant anytime they slow down their metabolism and stop producing new leaves. This can happen not only in the winter but also during extreme situations such as drought stress.

For many reasons, dormancy is an ideal time to prune trees, which is why we encourage winter pruning whenever possible. Trees such as elms and oaks, especially, benefit from winter pruning as it is less likely for tree pests or diseases to spread.

A Connecticut tree leafs out in springtime, making the dead branches more noticeable.

Dormant Trees and Branches vs. Dead Trees and Branches

Due to the lack of leaves and new growth, trees may appear dead during their dormant season. Additionally, it can be difficult to notice dead sections of trees on a dormant tree.

So how can you determine the difference?

Check for Signs of Life in Your Tree

If you can easily reach the section of your tree that you’re concerned might be dead (without using a ladder), there are ways to check if a branch is dead or dormant.

Does the Branch Bend or Break?

Choose a branch that is connected to the tree and bend it slightly. Live branches will have some flexibility to them, while dead branches will break.

Is the Inside of the Branch Gray or Green?

Another option is to scrape away a small section of the outer bark on a branch. You can use a pocketknife or even your fingernail to remove the top layer.

If the layer below the bark is green, the branch is still alive. If it is dry and a gray or brown color, the branch is most likely dead.

Are there Signs of Decay?

Does the tree have a lot of fallen branches? More than can be accounted for by wind or weather? If so, the tree may be in trouble.

You can also look for other signs of decay, such as peeling bark, large sections of the trunk missing, or even certain kinds of mushrooms growing at the tree’s base.

How to identify tree decay >>

A broken tree branch caught in wires near a home during the winter.

Wait Until Spring

If you don’t have a safe way to access the tree to determine if it is dead or dormant and if you are sure that the tree won’t pose any hazards this winter, you may be able to wait until spring. New buds will appear on healthy sections of a tree but not on any dead wood.

Keep in mind that if a tree is dead or dying, it may be safer to remove it as soon as possible before it causes any damage.

Call in the Professionals

If your tree is inaccessible, the potential dead branches are high in the tree canopy, or you want an expert opinion, contact Rayzor’s Edge Tree Service to schedule a tree inspection.

Our tree professionals are experts at spotting dead sections of trees (even during the dormant period). They can advise you if tree pruning, removing the tree, or other tree care services are necessary.

We have the equipment, knowledge, and experience to advise you on the best next step for your trees.

A Rayzor's Edge crew member works to remove a dead section of a tree.

What to Do With Dead Trees or Branches

If you perform any of the above steps and find that part (or all) of your tree is dead, what should you do?

Remove Dead Branches

Dead branches are more likely to break and fall, especially in high winds or adverse weather. Broken-off branches can leave large wounds in your tree that can give pests and diseases easy access to your tree.

For these reasons, we recommend scheduling professional pruning to remove the dead sections of your tree.

Depending on the number of dead branches that need to be removed, a professional from Rayzor’s Edge may also suggest:

  • Adding on structural pruning to prevent further issues.
  • Treating an underlying cause, such as a pest or disease that is causing the dead branches.
  • Removing the entire tree. If too many branches need to be removed, the tree will have trouble surviving.

Dead branches in a tree could be from a storm, an animal, or heavy ice, or it could point to a larger issue.

Remove Dead or Dying Trees

If an entire tree is dead (or nearly dead), it should be removed as soon as possible. While dead branches can cause injury or damage, dead trees are even more of a hazard.

Contact Rayzor’s Edge to schedule your dead tree removal.

The Rayzor's Edge crew works to remove a dead tree during the winter in Connecticut.

What if my Tree is Just Dormant?

If your tree is still showing signs of life, your tree may appear dead during the winter months, but it is just dormant. If it is dormant between when the leaves fall (in fall), and before buds appear (in spring), that’s normal.

If, however, your tree is showing signs of dormancy during other times of the year, it may point to another issue.

Contact Rayzor’s Edge Tree Service to schedule a professional tree assessment to determine if your tree is showing signs of dormancy due to things such as lack of water, heat stress, improper pruning, or another factor.

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