How to Determine if a Tree is Dead During the Winter Months

Year after year, trees work hard helping to improve the aesthetic appeal of your home and providing a number of other benefits. During the dormant season, the trees in your yard have an opportunity to rest, conserve energy and prepare for the coming spring.

While dormant, trees “slow down,” there are many who confuse this with the tree looking dead, because the branches are bare and there is very limited activity. The good news is, there are a few checks you can use to make sure your tree is still healthy during the winter months. Learn more here.

The 3-Step Check to Determine if Your Tree is Dead or Dormant

Here you will find three easy steps you can use to determine if your tree is dead, or if it is just dormant.

Step 1: Search for Budding Life

  • Dormant trees: Get close to the tree and search for any signs of small deaf buds. Even in the winter, the tree should still have buds.
  • Trees in trouble or dead: If there are no buds, or if the buds are shriveled and dry, this indicates a dead branch. Look at several branches to determine if the tree is completely dead. Additionally, if you find there are leaves that stayed around past the fall leaf drop time, then this is another sign of a dying or dead tree.


Step 2: Inspect the Trees Trunk

  • Dormant trees: The tree bark is going to go through a cycle similar to what the leaves on your trees do. The bark will replace itself as it grows. This means you should see fresh, new bark actively growing.
  • Trees in trouble or dead: If you have a tree trunk that shed layers, but didn’t replace them, then this may be an indication of tree decline. Try to find signs of cracks in the trunk, which is another indication of a dying tree. If you notice this warning sign, then you should call a professional to provide a more thorough evaluation of the tree’s health.


Step 3: The Scratch Test

  • Dormant trees: You can use your fingertip or a knife to scratch a small area on one of the twigs of the tree. The layer directly under the bark needs to be bright green and moist.
  • Trees in trouble or dead: If you see a brown or brittle layer after scratching a twig, then this means trouble. Make sure to repeat the test on several twigs. While you are doing this, you can also try to bend the twigs and if they break, you will know they are dead.


If you are worried that a tree in your yard may be dead, then the best thing you can do is contact the professionals to come out and evaluate it. They will be able to tell you if your tree is dead, or just dormant.