Can my tree be saved or Is my tree dying?

  At least once a day a client will ask us, “How can I save my tree?” or “Is my tree dying?”.  Many times these question come too late but other times it is just in the nick of time. A tree or plant may have brown spots on its leaves, yellowing leaves or leaves which are wilting or curling.  The canopy could be defoliating (dropping leaves), dropping fruit or the canopy could be turning completely brown.  There could be conks, fruiting bodies or mycelium (fungi) growing on tree or plant tissue. Just because you have seen some of these things doesn’t mean the tree is dead or even dying. It could mean your tree is sick or has a problem. However, as long as there is live tissue your tree is still alive. This means there still might be a chance.

What is the difference between a sign and a symptom in trees

  Usually a tree, muck like a human, will have symptoms and or signs of a disease.  Before we talk about signs and symptoms let’s make sure we know the difference between the two words. When trees or plants show outward visible effects of a disease this is a symptom. For example, symptoms of a disease could include wilting.  This could be a response to a fungal pathogen which is actively colonizing the tree tissue.  You can’t see the disease or pathogen itself but rather the effect of the disease on the tree. 

  Signs are actual physical evidence of the pathogen itself.  For example, a fruiting body such as Ganoderma sp. is a sign. This is because it is the disease or the build up of the fungus Ganoderma sp itself.  Many signs of disease are hard to see as organisms that cause tree and plant diseases are microscopic

Don’t wait to see more symptoms or signs

  If trees could talk, they could tell us about other symptoms they may be experiencing like humans.  Since they cannot speak we must look for visible symptoms and the signs.  Tree owners often call us when they see outward symptoms or a sign of something and the problem has actually been occurring for a long time.  Luckily for humans we can communicate when we have symptoms.  Generally if we communicate symptoms early we have a better chance at fixing the problem.  Waiting until there are obvious physical signs or symptoms to communicate a problem could be the difference between life or death.  It is for this reason one must pay attention to what is normal for their body and what is not. 

If a tree owner would like to have the best possible results for their trees, he or she should pay attention to their trees to be able to observe what is normal and what is not.

How to apply signs and symptoms to tree health

  Now let’s apply this to trees.  How do we catch symptoms or early signs before it becomes a much more obvious sign?  Usually the more obvious the sign the worse it is.  The best course of action is to figure out what is normal and what is not.  Often this can be more easily said than done with trees and plants.   Mostly this is because your average human is not aware of what a given tree or plant is supposed to look like and has very little familiarity with how a tree or plant functions.  Conversely, your average human is quite familiar with what is normal for a human and has a decent idea of how a body is supposed to function and look under normal circumstances.

Usually signs can be sampled by a pathology laboratory and identified. Some labs even offer suggestions on products which may help to treat the disease. Symptoms are generally requiring you to do more investigation to find the correct reason for the decline of the plant. Symptoms are not able to be identified by a pathology lab like signs are.

Observe your trees

  Here are some ways to help familiarize yourself with your tree or plant.  First do some research and look at photos online.  Study a bit about the anatomy (construction of the plant and its parts) as well as the physiological (functions) characteristics of your tree or plant. Research your tree or plant and find out more about it. What time of year does it usually grow new leaves? When is it supposed to grow new seeds? What time of year does it normally drop its leaves and much more? (To learn more ways to inspect your trees click here.) (Here’s a good site to help familiarize yourself with your tree.)

  After some studying, it doesn’t have to be a super in-depth study, start observing your plant or tree. Pay attention to leaf density, leaf color, yearly growth, flower growth, seed production or growth, fruit growth, pruning wound repair and other yearly or seasonal changes.  Observe other specimens of the same species around your area and notice if they look the same as yours.  Observe younger and older plants or trees of the same species as well to see the differences.  Get an idea of what is normal for the species.  Early signs of problems or subtle signs may include leaf discoloration, leaf yellowing, brown spots on leaves, less yearly growth etc.  Your ability to notice the differences and similarities of your species of tree is the best way to increase or improve your ability to spot problems with your tree or plant early on.

Stop the amplification of signs and symptoms

  Once you have spotted a change or a deviation from normal it is best to start ruling out the underlying problems..  This can be tricky, however, there are many tests that can be done on trees and plants to help narrow down possible causes or contributing factors.  Unfortunately, in arboriculture, much like in medicine, arborist are often not able to find the cause and so take a course of action to include multiple different possible treatments. Such an application would target a wide range of possible contributing factors thereby reducing or slowing the amplification or multiplication of signs and symptoms.  Stopping or slowing the amplification or multiplication of signs and symptoms is critical in the recovery of a tree.  This also applies to humans.

  Early identification of a potential problem is likely the best way you can handle health problems with all living things.  The next step is to do something about it.  Just because you observed a potential problem doesn’t get the ball rolling on handling the problem. 

What do I do now

  If there is still green foliage or green tissue just under the bark surface. (click here to see how to check). You must quickly get an arborist. It is our opinion to first get personal referrals from neighbor’s or people in the community you trust if possible.  In addition to or in conjunction with the above, you can also browse the internet for companies that can help.  You can call your local city arborist or parks department to ask who they would use for such issues.  You can also call your local university extension agent.  

  When considering an arborist or horticulturalist it is best to consider credentials, results and or track records. Considering how fast an arborist can get to your tree or plant is a factor, but 99% of the time it is second to the above.  For example, some restaurants may not have the best servers but their food is amazing.  I will allow a bit of slow service for the best food.  The same could be said for a great doctor, assuming it wasn’t an emergency, and is no different for a knowledgeable arborist.  That said, most people that have observed a problem with their trees are in a hurry to fix it.  Any arborist that is adept at plant health care and diagnosis is likely very busy and could be hard to get on site quickly… so be patient.  It is worth noting that many tree issues, if caught early, take a while to do lasting damage to the tree.

I’m antsy… I’m just going to do something

  Many tree owners try to self diagnose their tree or plant.  Usually this isn’t a good idea unless you will be using very mild treatments which are unlikely to do much damage.  Often I get to a property to asses a tree that is stressed and the tree owner has dumped fertilizer all around the tree.  Fertilizers can be very helpful to long term plant growth and health but many fertilizers, when used on trees and plants which already are stressed or declining, can be lethal.  Fertilizers which are the least harmful are slow release products and are formulated to slowly release the nutrients.

If you feel you must try to fertilize, at least use a very slow release fertilizer with high quality ingredients. An analogy is fitting here; vitamins and minerals rarely cause harm to a body but prescription drugs can and do.  Fertilizers can act as vitamins and minerals however, nitrogen and others can create more stress.  Boron is a plant micro-nutrient often included in the ingredients list of many fertilizers. Boron, can ,when used in large quantities, cause death of plants and trees.  Many fertilizers also contain salt. Which if overused, can create a condition where the soil will pull the water and nutrients back out of the plant or tree.  High salt content in soils and salt spray is harmful to trees and plants and can cause burning of the roots, leaves and other parts. If vitamins a person took had high amounts of salt in them, it would likely be bad for those that have health issues such as high blood pressure.  Plants can get too much salt as well.  

What can I do right now

  The best course of action, if you are itching to treat your own tree or plant now, is to start with a treatment that can improve the environmental conditions around the tree or plant. This will allow the plant or tree to function more as it would in the forest.  Forest trees are accustomed to very oxygen rich soil with a lot of decaying organic matter in it.  In the forest there is an abundance of organic debris which breaks down into nutrients. This organic debris creates pore space in the soil resulting in adequate amounts of oxygen within the soil. This soil is one in which roots can easily seek out nutrients and water.  Tools which eliminate or alleviate soil compaction are possibly the most therapeutic, non-damaging methods at improving overall tree health care. Air excavation tools can be used to holistical1ly improve soils and help to promote an abundance of absorbing roots. The process involving such tool have little to no negative side-effects to trees. 

  A concerned tree owner can rent the tool mentioned above with an air compressor and do the work themselves. (click this link to see an air spade in action).  A tree owner could also use aeration spikes on their feet and walk around under the tree canopy.  This could help restore some oxygen to the root zone and alleviate the side effects of root zone compaction.  A tree owner could also drill small holes all around the canopy with a larger drill bit. Back fill the holes with mulch or root zone humus (RZH) and get very good results.

It’s the simple things that matter

Root zone aeration is simple and can help restore natural function, as well as getting the tree to fend for itself. Best of all it doesn’t include intervening with chemicals as a first step.  The side-effects of the treatments mentioned above, no matter the condition of the tree or soil, will be very good. There are no harmful side-effects to the tree from these methods. Chemicals used to treat diseases are usually used when it’s too late for good preventative habits. This is similar to the use of drugs used to treat or lessen the effects of disease in humans. Good preventative care will reduce the need for such drugs. Chemicals used to treat trees and plants should be used carefully as there are side-effects.

Taking samples and troubleshooting

  The next possible solution to a treatment would be to take some samples of the soil. (Click here for more information on soil samples). Take some leaf tissue samples and possibly pathology samples of tree parts if you suspect a disease. Check out these charts on troubleshooting nutrient deficiencies and identifying symptoms consistent with nutrient related problems. For hardwoods: (link to hardwoods here) and palms: (links to palms). 

Keep in mind that these charts don’t give you the soil PH and this is critical in nutrient delivery.  If you have high or low PH, you will have nutrient deficiency phenomena in the tree or plant tissue. This is despite the fact that you could actually have the nutrients that you think are lacking available.  Proper timing and application of fertilizers is important. (Watch video on how to apply fertilizers to palms).

Slow your role… fungicides and pesticides are dangerous in the wrong hands

  Use of chemicals to treat disease or insect infestation should be used sparingly and very carefully.  Many tree and plant owners just throw these products out irresponsibly. This often leads to more plant and tree health care problems.  Fungicides used to treat harmful fungi are non-selective and can harm fungi that are beneficial to trees and plants.  Make sure you actually have a fungal pathogen present in the soil before doing soil applications.  Most (approximately 98%) of insects are helpful and beneficial to plants and trees.  Pesticides are also non-selective and harmful to beneficial insects as well as destructive insects.  Using aerial spraying techniques or soil applications may kill the good bugs. 

Injections are applied right into vascular tissue of trees and are less likely to harm good fungus and good bugs.   Research which products do the least or no harm to the good insects. Find out which have the greatest affect on insects which you know are damaging your tree or plant before use. Tree owners can buy these products and use them. However, it is best to let a professional treat trees and plants with chemicals. These products come with many risks and the label must be followed to avoid damaging the tree or you.

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