For Release May 8 2005

Is My Tree Dead?

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

Every spring I am regularly asked, "Is my tree dead?" Usually my response is, "Well, that just depends." I can tell that I'm about to start getting asked this question a lot in the next few days. We have some very normal things going on with some trees, and other trees that have in fact suffered some frost damage. Let's try to separate all these woody woes we're faced with right now!

Certain species of trees, elms and maples to name two, bloom heavily early in the year. Subsequently, if the weather cooperates, they can have a very heavy seed set. These seeds grow and ripen very quickly, just a matter of two to three weeks in most years. If there is a heavy seed set, the tree will concentrate efforts on seed production and maturation and will delay leaf out. These young, rapidly growing seeds are green and can easily be mistaken for leaves. Elms and maples did have a heavy seed set this spring.

Normally, about the time the seeds are maturing and falling off the trees, the new leaves are coming out. This year, the frosty weather hastened the color change of the seeds. Before the leaves started to come out, the seeds were falling off, looking for all the world like the tree had started to leaf out and then died. Additionally, the frosty nights may have also burned back a few of those early leaves, making the effect even more dramatic.

You need to go out and examine what is falling off those trees. You will probably find that they are seeds, not leaves. Dead or frosted leaves at this time of year, don't fall off that easily. These trees will start leafing out soon if they haven't already. This leafing out may be rather irregular and erratic over the tree, but don't worry about it, the tree is okay!

We are seeing a surprising number of trees that are showing some frost damage on leaves. Some species are more susceptible to frost damage than others, and damage may be worse lower on the tree than higher up. Remember, cold air settles and frost starts at ground level and works its way up. Frost damage will first appear as wilty or water soaked looking leaves. In a day or two they start to turn brown, or sometimes black, as they die. These damaged leaves often stay on the tree, unlike seeds that will be falling off. I have seen many different species of trees with frost damage this past week.

Very quickly after the weather warms up, the tree triggers secondary buds to start growing. If you look closely at the frosted branches, you should already be seeing this second round of buds starting to swell and grow. We rarely see serious long term damage from late spring frosts and freezes. It just doesn't get cold enough to do that. Early hard freezes in the fall, on the other hand, can be very devastating. Don't prune out damage leaves, don't add extra fertilizer, if anything, make sure the tree is well watered if we don't get rain. It'll recover quickly enough.

What won't recover is flower buds or fruit on trees. Flower buds in fruit trees are formed in the late summer. If the flowers, or the fruit, get too cold, they die, the small fruit falls off the tree and that's it for this year. In some cases not all the fruit may have gotten frosted, so the tree is thinned for you and you don't have to remove all that excess fruit. The tree itself will not have been damaged, you simply won't have fruit, or as much fruit, this year.


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