The death of a tree

Let’s say your tree dies. What do you do now?

Many will heave a sigh and get out the chainsaw. Some will call a professional to remove the specimen, and depending on the added cost, grind out the stump.

Some will swear because the tree is probably located in the worst possible location, usually in the fenced in back yard. And those trees may be 3-feet in diameter meaning a professional is definitely needed.

Personally, while chain saws can be fun, they need to be used with both feet planted firmly on the ground unless you are a trained professional. So, in most cases you really should consider the professional.

And if there are electric wires nearby, it only goes without saying that the professional should be the only person removing the tree.

But, another question should be going through the back of your mind: Why did the tree die? That question isn’t always easily answered.

A neighbor’s big red maple that had to be about 100 years old died suddenly. One day it was green; the next day it was a green brown. The following day all the leaves were brown.

This was after a severe storm. Looking at the trunk, you could see black streaks. Diagnosis: lightning. There wasn’t much that could have prevented it.

Another tree died slowly over the course of five years. A quick look at the base indicated that this huge 80-year-old monster didn’t have the flared trunk, and the homeowners admitted they added a foot of soil around the base to cover the roots that were interfering with the mower. Diagnosis: root suffocation.

Seldom does a tree die outright unless it’s hit by lightning or a fast moving disease, the latter affecting some of our evergreens especially the pines.

This brings up an issue. Make sure you know for sure what type of tree you have. Not all evergreens are pines, though all pines are evergreens. But so are spruces, firs, junipers and hemlocks. Lots of folks say “my pine tree died” when it really wasn’t a pine. Different insects and diseases affect the different evergreens.

Sometimes death diagnosis isn’t easy for trees. You need to look carefully at the leaves (or needles), the branches, trunk, surrounding area, and sometimes the root system, which may necessitate some digging.

It would be nice if plants only died of one problem. Sometimes it’s a combination of several.

Insect damage is usually obvious, though it might require you to remove bark to see if anything was feeding underneath. The presence of random holes and sap oozing from the trunk might indicate trunk feeding.

Diseases are tougher especially if the plant has died. At that time, nature takes hold and lots of fungi and insects start with the decomposition process, sort of like what you watch with bodies on TV shows. Fortunately plants don’t really bleed and ooze pinkish white parts when cut.

Usually with diseases, there will be discolorations of leaves (or needles) and possibly pimple-like eruptions on the limbs and trunks. Usually doesn’t mean always.

What we do know is that “dead is dead” and no matter how much you wish, a dead tree will not come back to life. If it does, please play the lottery.

If it died, you should get rid of it so it won’t infest (insects) or infect (diseases) those plants around it, especially if they are the same type of plant.

More Information:

David Robson is Extension Specialist, Pesticide Safety for the University of Illinois.