How to Identify if Your Tree is Diseased or Dead in Your Backyard

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Lawn & Garden

Determining if a tree in your backyard is healthy, sick, or dead is relatively simple. However, it can be challenging to differentiate between a sick tree and a dead one.

Joyce Kilmer, an American poet, was accurate in saying that nothing is as lovely as a tree in his poem “Trees” in 1913. Deciduous trees have leaves that change colors in autumn, providing a beautiful sight for people on the East Coast of the United States. During winter, the leaves fall to the ground and turn brown and brittle. In the spring, the green leaves reappear, and flowering trees blossom into stunning showpieces. Trees not only add beauty to their environments, but they also provide oxygen, shade, and homes for insects, birds, and animals.

Trees are capable of adapting and surviving in the harshest of environments. They are living organisms, and like humans, they can become sick and die. Microscopic organisms that live in the bark and root tissue of trees make it nearly impossible for a tree to be completely free of disease. However, trees are hardy, and they can typically coexist with pathogens.

In some cases, tree disease can be so severe that the tree cannot recover. If left untreated, the tree can become vulnerable to other diseases, and if it cannot save itself, humans may need to intervene. However, if a tree is too sick to save, it can become a liability. A diseased tree in your front yard can fall on your house, causing further problems. In this article, we will discuss some common tree diseases, how to diagnose them, and what can be done to save a sick tree.

Common Diseases that Affect Trees

Various diseases can impact trees, and most of them are specific to a certain type of tree. Anthracnose is a common disease that affects hardwood trees, specifically American sycamores, white oaks, dogwoods and black walnuts. It is prevalent in the eastern part of the United States, where these families of trees are abundant. Anthracnose causes discolored blotches or dead areas on the leaves, known as leaf blight. It is caused by fungi that reproduce through spores, which spread through the air, particularly during rainy and windy periods. Wet weather is necessary for spores to germinate, so anthracnose can become severe during long rainy periods. Although it won’t kill a tree, repeated defoliation can weaken it and make it susceptible to other diseases. The biggest impact of anthracnose is the reduction of shade trees in urban environments.

Root decay or root rot is another common cause of disease or death in trees. Roots are essential to supply nutrients and water, and the older the tree, the larger the root structure. Trees with root problems can get blown over in the wind or fall over without warning under the weight of its leaves. It’s difficult to determine if a tree has root decay, but broken roots or evidence of fungus are indicators.

Chestnut blight fungus is another devastating disease that has nearly wiped out the American chestnut from eastern forests. These fungus spores spread through wind and rain and infect fresh wounds in the bark, creating a canker. The fungus appears during moist weather and resembles an orange curled horn. Although no cure has been found, research is underway to develop a disease-resistant chestnut tree.

Is Your Tree Sick or Dead?

A healthy tree is strong and robust, but it can suffer in various ways due to environmental factors such as wind, rain, extreme heat, and cold. These factors cannot be controlled, so it’s essential to watch out for any early symptoms of ill health. Trees should be inspected once each season, especially after severe storms. Healthy trees have full crowns, which are the area of branches and leaves that extend from the main trunk. However, a tree can be sick and still have a lush, green crown. These are some key symptoms that indicate if a tree is unhealthy.

Signs of Tree Trouble

There are several signs that a tree may be in trouble. Dead wood is a clear indication of a problem, as it is brittle and likely to break. Cracks and cankers are also warning signs, as they indicate that a tree is failing. Weak branch unions can weaken the overall structure of the tree, and decay can be hard to detect at first. Poor tree architecture can also be a sign of trouble. If you suspect that your tree is in danger, it’s important to call an arborist for a consultation.

An arborist can diagnose the disease and recommend a course of action. Some diseased trees can be saved, but it’s best to remove dead trees as soon as possible to prevent any danger to people or property. It’s important to never attempt to remove a tree yourself, as it can be a dangerous job that requires expert precision.

Saving a Diseased Tree

Prevention is key when it comes to tree diseases. Keeping your trees healthy can help them resist disease. To maintain healthy trees, try the following:

The following tips should be kept in mind to maintain healthy trees in your garden. Do not use weed fertilizer on grass near the tree’s roots, as it can damage the tree. If you mulch around the tree, make sure to leave a little space around the trunk to allow air to circulate and prevent wood rot. If the tree has exposed roots, avoid using a lawn mower or anything with a sharp blade, and instead, hand trim the area. During droughts, watering trees is important as it helps prevent the roots from moving up in search of water, which can weaken the tree’s root structure. Finally, proper pruning practices are essential, and it is important to consult a local nursery or tree specialist for instructions on how to prune different species of trees.

It is important to take care of your trees, as some diseases have caused the loss of entire tree species. Dutch Elm Disease (DED) devastated the American Elm population by clogging vascular tissues, which are responsible for water transport in trees. Elm bark beetles also play a role in spreading the disease. Once a tree is infected, it can rapidly spread to other trees through connected root systems, killing all the trees in its path. Lack of water can also lead to the death of the crown, causing the tree to wilt and die.

For more information on how to maintain healthy trees, refer to the links and articles provided.

The list provides various sources of information on tree diseases and pests, including articles from government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The sources cover a range of topics, including anthracnose diseases, chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, hazardous defects in trees, and how to identify and address problems with tree pests. The list also includes an article on the importance of hiring an arborist, as well as a resource on a specific pest, the cottonwood borer.


1. How do I know if my tree is dead?

You can check if your tree is dead by looking for signs of life such as leaves, branches, and buds. If there are no leaves or buds on the tree and the branches are brittle and break easily, your tree is likely dead.

2. What are the signs of a diseased tree?

Signs of a diseased tree include discolored leaves, spots on the bark, and branches that are brittle and break easily. You may also notice pests and insects around the tree.

3. What should I do if I suspect my tree is diseased?

If you suspect your tree is diseased, it is best to contact an arborist. They can properly diagnose the issue and recommend the best course of action.

4. Can a diseased tree be saved?

It is possible to save a diseased tree if caught early enough. The arborist may recommend pruning, fertilization, or other treatments to help the tree recover.

5. How do I prevent my tree from getting diseased?

You can prevent your tree from getting diseased by ensuring it is properly watered and fertilized. Also, regularly inspect your tree for signs of disease and promptly address any issues that arise.

6. What are some common tree diseases?

Common tree diseases include Dutch elm disease, oak wilt, and apple scab. Each disease has its own unique symptoms and treatments.

7. Can I treat my tree for disease myself?

It is not recommended to treat your tree for disease yourself. Improper treatment can cause further damage to the tree and potentially spread the disease to other trees in the area.

8. What should I do if my tree is beyond saving?

If your tree is beyond saving, you may need to have it removed. Contact a professional tree removal service to safely remove the tree.

9. Is it dangerous to have a dead tree in my yard?

Yes, a dead tree can be dangerous. It may fall and cause damage to your property or injure someone. It is best to have a dead tree removed as soon as possible.

10. How often should I have my trees inspected?

You should have your trees inspected by an arborist at least once a year. This will help catch any issues early on and prevent further damage to the tree.

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