How Do I Know If My Plant Is Really Dead?

Reading the Drought Monitor for the next few months isn’t the most uplifting material, but then again, the situation in our landscapes may not be as dire as we think.

In particular, the question asked, debated, and referred to friends, neighbors, and even “experts” – is it (tree, shrub, etc) really dead? And will it come back?

The short answer to part two: if it’s really dead, no amount of water, fertilizer, or pruning will bring it back.

The answer to part one is more complicated but here’s the short answer: for deciduous plants, we may need to wait until spring green-up to find out.

Deciduous plants are those plants that lose their leaves (in theory at least) during the fall and winter – the dormant season. Normally associated with broad leafed trees and shrubs, right now these plants are ‘”naked” or bare. Yes there are a few whose leaves turned brown and stayed attached to the tree, but the majority shed leaves to give us something to do on fall afternoons during football season!

Unfortunately, to most of us, a bare, dormant tree looks dead anyway, and with the drought that’s followed us into the first quarter is an area of concern.

However, in the majority of cases, the best action is – do nothing other than continue supplemental watering unless rainfall is adequate.

Mature, healthy, well-established trees and shrubs generally handle drought better than newly planted and/or young trees as root systems on the “oldsters” have developed more extensively. Two “tests” to check the health of a tree that is naturally devoid of leaves this time of year are the “bend” and “scratch” methods. Using both hands, take a piece of branch and gently but firmly bend it. If it breaks in pieces with a cracking sound, that branch is dead. However if there is “give” in the branch, there’s still life, so leave it. The “scratch” method is equally precise! With a thumb nail, gently scratch the bark outer layer on a branch. If the material exposed is greenish in color (the cambium layer), that branch is still alive. A dark-colored cambium, accompanied by failure to bend when handled, is a pretty sure sign that branch is dead and won’t come back to life. However that doesn’t mean the entire tree is dead, which is the reason to wait and see what happens during spring green-up.

Evergreens, including conifers, are a different issue that will be addressed in another article, but for deciduous trees and shrubs, many are tougher than we realize so give them a chance to “do their thing” come spring!

By Sallie Lee, Urban Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.  Contact Sallie at

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.  Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

Alabama Extension

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities and answers home-gardeners' questions each week on Birmingham Gardening Today.

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