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How to Identify Dead Branches on a Tree

Trees are a precious and valuable part of our landscape. Apart from providing beautiful scenes of nature, they provide clean, refreshing air and cool shade. Scientists have documented that through the process of transpiration, trees can even indirectly bring rainfall. 

The health of a tree is essential to the circle of life on our planet and should be properly maintained. 

Trees can naturally die, but in some cases, external factors may contribute to the death of a tree or its branches. Dead branches on a tree should be pruned or cut out to protect the well-being of the healthy branches. This can be done at any time of the year as long as there is a dead branch on a tree.

It’s important to note that a single dead branch does not imply that the tree is totally lifeless. At some point in their lifecycle, large growing trees will have dead branches. However, multiple dead branches could indicate that there is a problem with the tree that needs to be dealt with. With so many different reasons for a tree to have dead branches or dead spots, it can be a tough call to make, but there are ways to distinguish a dead branch from a live one, even when a deciduous tree sheds its leaves in the winter.

This is why we recommend that you seek help from our experts here at Mr. Tree if you have an issue with trees on your property. Our company has over 30 years of experience in residential and commercial tree services, matters of maintenance, damage, and diseases. We have the expertise and professionalism for all your tree care needs.

Let’s take a look at how to identify dead branches on a tree.

Use Scratch Test

The most common way to identify a dead branch is by checking its cambium layer, that is, the growing part of the tree. 

Take a smooth knife and scratch a small spot on the branch. Look for wet tissue underneath the layer that you have just scratched. If the tissue has a greenish hue, that is an indication that the branch is alive. If the cambium layer is dry or brown, this will show that the branch is dead. 

It is advisable to do this very carefully because making a big scratch on a branch of a tree could damage the branch or expose it to various infections that may eventually kill it. A scratch on a small part of the branch is enough to carry out this test.

Shake the Branch

A small living branch should be flexible and easily bent without cracking or breaking. It’s the opposite for dead branches, as they are non-flexible, easily snap, and have a dry, brownish appearance. In most cases, they will also feel hollower, lighter, and drier. 

Shaking branches is a great way to determine if a tree branch is dead. Stiff branches could be a sign they are dead, whereas flexible branches are usually alive. At Mr. Tree, we recommend that when shaking branches, you should put on personal protective equipment. such as gloves, a mask, and a helmet to protect your hands and avoid injury or inhaling anything. 

Looking at the Branch Collar

A branch collar is the “shoulder” that attaches a branch to the trunk and allows the branch to withstand stress from numerous directions. This collar is often thicker than the rest of the branch.

When a branch dies, the collar will slowly try to swallow the dead branch. A roll of wood that seems to be creeping up a branch is a sign the branch is dead and should be removed from the tree just above the collar.

Branch Has No Leaves

Sometimes, external stress factors, such as excessive temperatures and drought, can lead to a tree killing some of its branches in order to adapt to the environment and increase its chances of survival. This is an instinctive plant survival mechanism. 

During dry periods, a plant is normally unable to take enough water from the soil. It will shed leaves from some of its branches, causing those branches to die and dry up. Coniferous trees will show branches with red or yellow needles when they die.

Evidence of Critters and Fungus

Pests like carpenter ants seek habitat on trees that are dead or under large amounts of stress. Dead branches could also be host to fungi, such as turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor). Fungal growths like mushrooms will appear after an infection has already killed the branch. These are indications of rot. If not taken care of, rot may extend to the entire tree.

Check for Buds on Twigs

Trees develop both leaf and flower buds long before they are scheduled to open. The buds begin to swell and then break in early spring. During this time, branches that have nodes that are swelling are alive.

The buds possess outer masking that provides them with safety during the winter weather season. A dry bud or the absence of buds is an indication that the branch is not receiving water and nutrients. In this case, the branch could be dead.

Falling Bark

With time, old bark will naturally fall off a branch. On healthy branches, this will be automatically replaced by new layers of bark. Large areas of fallen bark that expose smooth wood underneath are a warning sign that the branch is dead or dying and can not generate new bark.

Dead branches are not helpful to a tree and have negative effects on a tree’s health. They prevent a tree from healing properly and harbor harmful pests and infections, thereby exposing the tree to various risks.

Pruning the dead branches on a tree is essential for the tree’s health. It gives the tree a chance to renew and restore itself, directing nutrients and water to its healthy branches and reducing its vulnerability to pests and diseases. However, cutting dead branches should be done by a professional, both for safety purposes and for the health of the tree.

How to identify dead branches on a tree? Contact Mr. Tree and let us lend a hand in helping with your tree’s health.