Of all the landscape plants growing around a home, mature trees indeed add value and a special presence to the property. Many species of trees – such as oak, poplar, dogwood, maple, hickory and pine – can live to the ripe old age of 35 to 75-plus years. Some specimens could be described as seen only once in a generation – meaning someone will not live to see another one grow that big and majestic in his or her lifetime. 

It’s a sad day to notice beloved trees beginning to decline, die or be taken down and removed.  

Have you looked up lately? Early spring is the ideal time to evaluate yard trees around homes. Many times after a long winter, people fail to look up and notice that something is wrong with their trees. If and when people do, they are surprised to find that a tree on their property is not doing well or has died. 

By mid-spring, every deciduous tree that is healthy will show at least some sign that it is alive by blooming or putting out new leaves. Trees with no leaves when they should have some are likely declining, dying or dead. Any tree that has yet to become green should raise a red flag and be labeled as a hazard.

A hazardous tree is defined as any tree that might fall and cause property damage and/or bodily harm and should be removed immediately. This includes all trees that have dead branches, dieback in the top of the tree, extensive damaged or diseased areas hollowed out or tree that are completely lacking foliage. Extensive decay, bark falling off or cankers are major warning signs.

This is usually the time when I get phone calls of concern. Many homeowners ask me what can be done to save their trees. I often respond by doing a site visit and evaluation of the situation. Unfortunately, I am most often the bearer of bad news. The bottom line is once trees begin to shows signs of stress and decline, there is nothing a homeowner or arborist can do to stop or reverse it. There are no magic potions, no products, nor any methods that can fix the problem. The only strategy to keeping trees from having most health problems is prevention.   

I cannot emphasize enough the importance to look up. The early signs of decline in trees are fewer leaves on branches and twigs in the very tops of trees’ canopies. This typically indicates there are root problems. Trees that have root damage and stress cannot provide nourishment to the farthest point in the trees – at the tiptop – so, portions in the canopies die first and slowly expand; and then, move down the trees.

Examine how much foliage is present and how much is not. Look for dead limbs. Leaves are the food-making portions of the tree. If the tree does not have enough leaves and cannot make food to sustain it, it will basically starve to a slow death.  

There are numerous reasons that cause trees to decline and then die, but damage to the roots is the primary cause. Any time the most sensitive area of the tree – the roots – is directly or indirectly harmed, the tree will suffer long-term consequences. 

Human activity – such as building construction near trees’ roots, digging within the root zones and trenching and cutting roots around the trees – are major factors. The traffic of heavy equipment during house construction causes soil compaction and limits the trees’ abilities to take up oxygen, nutrients and water. Digging, for whatever purpose, ultimately tends to sever trees’ roots and shorten their longevity. Grading, moving and piling up of soil around the trees’ trunks will lead to the suffocation of roots. Remember any kind of this activity is a no-no and usually unforgivable. There will be long-lasting effects, which will result in the tree eventually declining and dying within a few years, depending on the extent of the damage. 

If you love your trees, prevent all human activity from interfering with the root systems of them. You must protect them if you wish to save and keep them.   

Assessing trees for the potential to decline in health and possibly fall is very difficult, even for the trained eye, but if you inspect trees often – and it is important that you do – here are a few things to look for that may indicate a problem or tree at risk:

  • Look for fewer leaves and dead branches within the canopies. 
  • Watch for cracks and splits on the trunks and major limbs. 
  • Trees with co-dominant or two main trunks may be structurally unstable. 
  • Trees with good taper are stronger than those that have long, lanky trunks.
  • Trees that have been topped have new growth that is weakly attached.
  • Visible defects – such as cankers and wounds – along the trunks and branches are sometimes weak points and could indicate other problems. 
  • Look for any presence of insects or insect damage, cracked or loosened bark, conks (mushrooms) and decay or rot in the trees. 
  • Severed roots can drastically compromise a tree’s stability, causing it to potentially fall. 

Trees that decline and die often do so for a number of reasons. There is usually an accumulation of stress over many years, including drought, storms, old age, root damage, insects, etc. Major droughts and past root damage are devastating to tree health and are usually the final chinks in the tree’s armor that results in death.   

Once trees begin showing symptoms as mentioned above, they may live several more years or could come tumbling down at any moment. Strong storms always have the potential to knock down the largest and healthiest trees, but those weak or damaged ones are even more likely to come crashing down. 

Either way, the dying tree will not recover and will need to be removed at some point. Although the reason why a tree is unhealthy is important, your main concern should be assessing and removing that tree. Leaving it could be very risky. Consult with an educated and professional arborist for advice. 

And keep looking up: Your tree might be telling you something. For additional help with home and garden information, contact a local county Extension Office or visit www.aces.edu.

~ Shane Harris is the Tallapoosa County Extension coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension.