Signs of a Sick or Dying Tree & What to do if your tree is affected

Trees are a very important part of our ecosystem and are a big part of Australian life. Almost everyone has a tree in their back yard whether it’s big or small and even those that live in apartment blocks or condominiums have trees in common areas. Trees provide us, birds and animals with a home, nutrients, food and more. A well maintained tree can also potentially improve the value of a property. Being such a valuable natural resource, they also help reduce pollution in the air, they provide us with fresh air, shade and even a place to sit and relax.

Trees are quite low maintenance and while they can live a very long time, unfortunately they do not live forever. There are numerous reasons why a tree may fall ill and die prematurely so it’s important to maintain a tree and at least regularly check on the health of a tree.

This article addresses how to identify if a tree is sick or dying and actions to take if your tree is infected.

The History of The Tree

Before looking for signs that a tree is sick or dying, it helps if you already know some of the history of the tree. A trees history may give clues as to why it might become unhealthy or might be dying.

Has It Been Transplanted?

If a tree has been relocated, it might not be receiving the nutrients it needs as it may have lost a lot of its root system during the transplantation process which is a common thing. The tree might simply be in shock which can happen after a transplant. When a tree is in shock, its exterior appearance could look similar to that of one that is drying.

Has It Been Lopped Before?

Lopping is quite common practice and also commonly done by a home handyman or a tradesman that isn’t a qualified arborist. Lopping can cause a lot of damage to a tree short term and long term as it does not promote healthy regrowth and could potentially kill a tree for numerous reasons. If you want to find out more, we recently covered the topic of tree lopping in this article here.

Are There Factors Nearby That May Affect The Tree?

Have there been issues with soil in the area or even other trees transplanted into the area? Are there bugs or holes or visible damage in the tree that have been created by animals or even humans. Has it been a really dry season and has the tree been watered? Has there been an excessive amount of mulch placed around the tree? All these factors and more can have an effect on the tree which could potentially be deadly.

Signs of a Dying Tree

These are the most common signs of a tree that is dying to look out for. In most cases you should be able to identify most of these signs yourself but if in doubt, always consult with an experienced professional. 

Signs of a dying treeDeadwood

If you have been regularly checking on a tree, you should easily notice if there is any dead wood and if any branches have become drier or are easily breaking. If you are now starting to check the tree for deadwood, dead branches break off really easily and may have a brittle feeling so it would be quite easy to identify.

Dead Bark

While older tress naturally have some dead bark, keep a look out for cankers. Cankers is a fungal disease which can be destructive to trees. If you see patches or areas of dead bark on your tree and it does not look healthy then some action may be needed as the bacteria will continue to further infect the tree. In some cases the infected area can be removed quite easily but if a tree has been badly affected, it will need to be assessed whether it poses any dangers to the surroundings.


If the tree isn’t growing straight up and is leaning or just growing in an unusual way, there’s a good chance that the tree might need some attention. You may find plants and trees growing in confined areas reaching towards the sun but this can also cause issues which can lead to a tree getting damaged and becoming sick. Other causes of unnatural grown could include tree lopping or even pruning which has not been performed by a qualified arborist.

Weak Branches

If a tree has been lopped before or simply trimmed back without the knowledge of a qualified arborist, it is very likely that any new regrowth will be weak if a tree has survived being lopped. The effects of lopping or bad pruning can have a long term effect  constantly placing stress on the tree. If a tree is trying to regrow and does not have the nutrients needed after lopping, it can go into stress.

General Decay

The general decay of a tree may be signs that a tree may need some attention. Decay is a very broad term but if you look at a tree there may be some signs of decay such as unusual swelling in some areas or at the base of the tree. You may find that some parts of the tree might easily break away.


If you look at the condition of the leaves on a tree, it can also give hints to the state of the tree. For example, if a tree usually has nice green leaves and the leaves turn brown and wilt, it may be a sign of over watering. Providing a tree with a good amount of water is important but over watering can cause stress on a tree or can even cause root rot which means the tree is being suffocated. Different species of trees have different watering needs with some thirstier than others.


Fortunately unlike many other countries we do not have a big termite problem in Australia but it doesn’t mean that we can become complacent. While trees provide a home for a range of different critters, if termites found their way to the tree then some serious damage can be done. It’s interesting to note that termites will generally look for dry or deadwood which is why maintenance on your tree is important to cut all dead wood out that can become home to white ants and other pests. Termites do not like living in heathy trees. It would be terrible if the termites found their way into a home slowly eating away at the structure, cupboards or furniture when a little bit of attention to the trees outside could have avoided any issues.

Regular Maintenance and Checks

Even though trees are fairly low maintenance, some maintenance and regular checking is always recommended to ensure a good healthy tree. Like us, trees are living creatures too and we visit doctors for regular health checks.

Keeping the above in mind, check the tree from time to time to see whether you see any deadwood or cracks developing. Check if the branches feel or look weak when you give a gentle squeeze or if branches seem to just peel off without effort.

During seasonal changes, don’t forget your regular gardening care activities like mulching, pruning, fertilising. You may have seen one of our previous blog articles where we talk about Spring Tree Care and Winter Tree Care. The basic principles are quite similar with some different things to be aware of depending on the season. For example, you would want to brace a tree if winter is known to bring strong winds or heavy rains in your area, especially if you have long lateral branches.

What to do if your tree is sick or dying

Now that we have identified if there is an issue with the tree, there are some simple actions that you can take to help revive or improve the condition of the tree. Have a look at the following:


If there is mulch around the tree, check that too much mulch hasn’t been applied. If the mulch around the base of a tree is too think and the mulch has been piled up around the tree trunk, spread it out a bit. Having a thick layer of mulch does more harm to the tree as it suffocates the roots and also promotes a range of other problems like insects, fungi and rotting.

Tree Pruning

Simply cutting back branches and calling it tree pruning can potentially be detrimental to the health of a tree. Do some research first in the different techniques for pruning trees and if you are capable then prune the tree back and rid of the problem branches. It is important that a tree is pruned carefully. Simply cutting off branches can cause more harm than good and may cause more damage or even encourage stress to the tree. If pruned correctly, you can not only remove any diseased areas but promote healthy regrowth.  Make sure the problem branches are disposed of properly to prevent the issue from spreading.


If you haven’t fertilised before, the tree might not be receiving the nutrients it needs. Like us, trees need nutrition to grow big and strong. If you have not worked with fertilisers before, there are many products available which you can find at your local nursery or even a hardware store or supermarket. Make sure you read the instructions and check the labels before purchasing to make sure you have the right product and know how to properly apply to the area being fertilised.

Seek Professional Advice & Work With a Fully Qualified Arborist

The most important piece of advice we give is to consult with a professional if you are unsure or if you are inexperienced in this field. Even with the information that we have shared and the information that is readily available on the internet these days, there is no replacing the skills and expertise of a fully qualified arborist that is trained in arboriculture as well as performs these types of tasks every day.

Fully qualified arborists are given names like tree doctors and tree surgeons because they are trained and certified in arboriculture with the aim to promote healthy tree growth. They can help you with identifying and managing tree risks and while being very knowledgeable, regularly perform tasks like target pruning, trimming, headging, tree removal while also protecting your trees with bracing, fertilising and mulching.

Calling on an arborist to complete tasks for you like pruning and trimming not only gives you comfort that your tree will receive the best care it needs, it also means that you will not have to climb up high in the tree to perform dangerous tasks. A good qualified arborist will also have climbing skills and have the ability to perform tasks safely while in dangerous situations. This also reduces the risk of personal and property damage. In the unlikely event of an accident, the arborist will also be adequately insured to cover themselves and your property.

We see all too often and there are plenty of questions on the internet about trying to revive a tree after it has been badly lopped or pruned either by a handyman or a home enthusiast. Even if you wanted to do the work yourself whether it’s pruning and trimming or lopping it is advisable to consult with a professional to make sure you are on the right track and not in a position creating more damage in the long term.