Scratch Your Tree to See If It’s Alive

20180507A Conner Montgomery,

This tree has been slow to leaf out, but it might not be dead. Source: Conner Montgomery,

It’s spring and everything is coming back to life. Except one of your trees or shrubs. While all other woody plants around them are sprouting buds that swell and burst into leaves, this one specimen still hasn’t shown the slightest sign of life. Is it dead?

Why Some Trees Leaf Out Late

Before panicking, consider if anything might be causing a delay.

For example, it may be normal for the species in question. Each species has its own schedule for leafing out. Catalpas (Catalpa spp.), for example, often stress their owners by sprouting very late in spring, often a full month after other trees.

Freshly planted trees and shrubs may still be settling in and putting their energy into root growth before growing leaves.

A spring flood can also delay leafing out, yet many trees can sit in water for a month with no damage (as long as the flood comes early).


This maple lost all its branches, but dormant buds are now sprouting. Remove the dead branches to give them space to grow. Source:

Also, the tree may have undergone some sort of setback: an unusually cold winter, for example, may have killed the first generation of buds, or a drought the previous fall could have had the same effect. Or a deep spring frost just as the new leaves were sprouting may have killed them all. Fortunately, woody plants normally have replacement buds buried beneath their bark that will produce a new set of leaves … but later than usual.

Or maybe you dared to plant a species beyond its normal hardiness zone? A zone tree 6 in zone 5, for example? That means even a normal winter may have killed the dormant buds on the outside … but not necessarily the entire tree. There may still be a little life buried inside that is just waiting a bit to come out.

Slow to Sprout, But Still Alive?

But now your patience is pretty much exhausted. The branches look dry and snap rather than bend when you try to curve them: certainly not a good sign. But even if all branches are dead, there may still be life in the tree.


Eureka! The cambium is still fresh and green, showing this tree is still alive! Source:

So, try the scratch test. Scrape the bark off a small section and take a look. With your fingernail or penknife, scratch a section where the bark is still relatively thin, enough so you can see the cambium (layer just under the outside bark). If the tree is alive, the cambium will be green. If it’s brown or white and dry, unfortunately, the trunk is dead.

When the cambium is dead, the only hope left is that the plant will be able to regenerate from its base. That’s often the case for shrubs, but not all trees. And if a tree does resprout from the base, if it was a grafted tree (the case with most fruit trees, for example), what grows may not be the cultivar you wanted but the stock plant, that is, the tree the desirable variety was grafted onto.

Of course, sometimes a tree that looks dead really is dead and you’ll have little choice but to replace it!20180507A Conner Montgomery,

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