Trees hurt by drought: Are they dead or dormant?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 | 6:33 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Think twice before pulling out the chainsaw. Although trees around town might appear to be dead, many have just gone dormant. 

This past summer’s drought has caused many trees to go into dormancy early. Dormancy is an appropriate response to drought, said Stephen Pallardy, an MU professor of forestry.

Trees close the stomata on their leaves, which stops water from entering or exiting the leaf. This defends trees from further drought damage and prepares them for winter months.

Assess carefully the condition of the tree before cutting it down, Pallardy said.

Evergreens such as spruces and pines are typically dead if they are brown and have lost all of their needles. Those signs don't always determine the health of hardwoods like oaks and maples, which may come back next year healthy. 

Pallardy suggests checking the branches by rubbing the end. If green is visible on the branch, the tree is definitely still alive. If not, try other branches.

The best way to decide if a tree is alive is to call a certified arborist trained by the International Society of Arboriculture.     

Matt Lewis is an International Society Arboriculture certified arborist with Lewis Tree Service LLC. He suggests trying to break a branch in several locations on a dead-looking tree. If the branch snaps, the tree is probably dead. If the branch is still rubbery, there is life left.

"Trees died from drought stress earlier this year," Lewis said. "The limbs are starting to break out of them and that kind of gives us an indication that the tree needs to be removed sooner rather than later."

Overhanging limbs are a concern if they hang over a structure, especially with winter weather on the way.

“If the tree is not a hazard or a danger, it might be better to wait until next spring to cut it down,” Pallardy said. 

Supervising editor is Jacob Kirn.

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