KC Gardens

Is your tree dying? Use these visual clues — from rot to fungi — to help you decide

Damage like this on a red maple trunk needs to be assessed before more catastrophic problems occur.
Damage like this on a red maple trunk needs to be assessed before more catastrophic problems occur. Johnson County K-State Research and Extension

Recent storms revealed possible hidden dangers lurking in our yards. Our beloved trees could be showing signs of defects.

Unfortunately, a tree defect claimed the life of a local resident. Discovering all the issues that could lead to failure is not possible.

Luckily there are visual signs to help you detect potential problems. Taking a few minutes to evaluate your trees may help save your property and loved ones.

Here are a few visual clues.

Exposed wood and peeling bark

Tree bark is a protective layer like our skin. Absence of bark and exposed wood are signs of a tree in trouble. Once the bark layer is lost, moisture and decay occur. Missing bark means that the cambium, or growth layer of the tree, is dead.

The cambium layer is the only living part and the lifeline of a tree. Under the cambium layer is dead wood. Its purpose is to support the tree. Once exposed, the wood begins to lose its strength.

Look for rot and decay

Wood is organic, which means when it is exposed to the elements, it breaks down over time. The rotting of wood in the main trunk or branches develops into a cavity. Just like a cavity in your tooth, it loses strength as it rots.

Eventually, a force of nature causes the tree branch to fail, meaning it will break off. Rotting wood is soft and often sunken.

Unfortunately, sometimes decay may be internal and unnoticeable to the naked eye. Trees often rot from the inside out.

Fungal growth

Many organisms feed on decaying wood. Fungi are the usual decomposers.

As the fungus develops, it creates a network of tendrils. Eventually, these fungi show up as a growth on the outside of the tree. These fungal growths can take on all sizes and shapes and are often referred to as shelf or conk fungi.

The signs of any fungal growth on any part of a tree indicate decay is present.


Snow, ice and wind take a toll on weak tree structures. The most common point of failure occurs where two limbs form a narrow V-like crotch.

Structurally, these branch unions do not develop strong supportive wood. Stress causes them to pull apart. When the two branches separate and a gap forms, the result is typically failure of the branch. During the next bad storm, the limb could splinter off.

We can never predict when a tree might fail. Take a few minutes out to look for signs of these defects.

If you spot any of these issues, now is the time to act. Contact a certified arborist trained to help recognize and diagnose the chance of failure. Remember it is always better to be safe than to be sorry.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? You can also email them to garden.help@jocogov.org.

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