Is your Tree Dead or Dormant?

I’ve planted four trees this summer (two apple, two pear), but one of these stands out for all the wrong reasons. While the others had blossoms earlier in the season and currently have leaves (two of them even have some fruit), one of them is completely barren. Now I bought all of these trees from the same location on the same day, so I had expected them to perform roughly the same. When that didn’t happen, I was scared the one had died for some reason. This is when I learned more about dormancy.

Dormancy is basically hibernation for trees. Typically this is something that occurs to ensure they survive cold winter months. The degree of this does vary in different climates, but here in Wisconsin it can get pretty cold. There’s less sunlight and when water in the ground turns into ice crystals it can’t be absorbed by tree roots. So, they lose their leaves and basically go to sleep so they require as few resources as possible to stay alive.

It’s normal to see trees that look like this in the winter months

However, it’s not winter right now and my tree is still looking naked and afraid. There are things beyond temperature and sunlight that can trigger a tree to go into self preservation mode. Diseases, drought, and stress are all possible causes. Shortly after we got these trees (they weren’t even planted yet) we went through a period where we were getting a lot of rain. It’s possible this particular tree was packed in tighter soil and as result held on to more water than it needed. This suffocates the roots and could possibly be responsible for stressing the tree into dormancy (dormant trees need less oxygen). This is just a theory though.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from Romeo and Juliet, it’s make sure something’s really dead before you make any rash decisions. It would be a real shame to get rid of a tree that was still very much alive because it’s temporarily barren. However, it would also be immensely silly to spend time and effort tending to a tree that’s already gone and beyond saving. So, it’s important to know how to tell the difference. There are two easy tests to do. One is to take the end of a twig and bend it back. If it’s pliable and merely bends, it’s dormant. If it’s brittle and snaps off, it may be dead. The second test is to scratch off some of the bark with a knife. If it’s dormant it should be green underneath as opposed to brown. If it’s brown, check more branches and further towards the trunk. You may only have to trim off a few dead twigs.

While I had hoped my tree was merely dormant, I was suspicious it may be dead. There was no sign of life after a good amount of time had passed with the tree experiencing the same conditions as the other trees that were flourishing. So I did these two tests and here were the results:

The branches were brittle and broke easily
Scraping the bark away from the trunk revealed more brown and no green

Unfortunately, it does appear that the tree is in fact dead. On the bright side, I’ll be able to exchange it from where I bought it (they allow this for up to a year after a tree is purchased and I made sure to keep the receipt!). These things happen and I don’t believe it’s because of anything I did wrong. I’m glad I know now so I can get a healthy tree in it’s place. So, if you have a tree that you’re unsure about, I’d encourage you to do these tests sooner rather than later. Your time and effort are valuable and it would be a shame to invest them in something that can’t give you any return.


Click to access Crops_Tolerant_of_Moist_Sites.pdf


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