What to Do When the Top of Your Tree Dies

I don’t know if we’re cursed or what, but we’ve had two trees exhibit a strange, disfiguring phenomenon wherein the top part of the trunk — the “leader” — has died, taking with it numerous scaffold branches and leaving an unsightly, shortened trunk surrounded by perfectly healthy branches.

Bare branches of a tree against a blue sky, printed with green and white text.

One was a cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), and the other, a Texas red oak (Quercus buckleyi).

The cedar elm was fairly young, only about 8 feet tall, when its top died. The tree was located in a prominent place on our corner suburban lot, so we dug it up and moved it to our side yard, behind a fence.

If the top of your tree has died, there are several possible causes, and solutions that may preserve the life of the tree. Read more now on Gardener's Path: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/top-tree-dies/

We didn’t hold much hope for it, because after we lopped off the top, all that was left was a crazy array of lateral branches radiating out from what was left of the center trunk.

The red oak was about 10 years old and 40 feet tall when its top died. As large as it was, quite a few large scaffold and lateral branches also became firewood.

Read on to learn more about the fate of our trees!

Common Causes

What causes the top part of a tree to die? It could be any of a number of things. Let’s examine them in more detail:

Root Stress

Root stress is among the most likely causes of the demise of the top of the tree.

“A tree tries to maintain a balance between the top and the underground system,” says Skip Richter, county extension agent in horticulture for Harris County, Texas. “There’s a constant flow both ways. If you lose roots, you’re going to lose something above ground.”

Root Stress Can Bring the Demise of the Top of a Tree | GardenersPath.com

Recent construction near the tree, or soil compaction from other causes, can stress roots. “In suburban environments, we build houses, streets, and sidewalks near trees,” says Richter. “All of these can cause issues.”

Another form of root stress comes from root girdling — when the roots coil around the base and constrict the flow of sap.

This can happen when trees are grown in containers, and the problem is exacerbated when they are brought home from the nursery and planted too deep.

Drought

A lack of adequate water can lead to death of the top part of a tree as well. “Make sure your tree gets a good soaking on an infrequent basis,” says Richter. “Most of our watering is too little too often.”

Drought can spell trouble for tree health. | GardenersPath.com
Drought can spell trouble.

Richter suggests watering to a depth of two inches every two weeks if it’s been dry. And he suggests using a rain gauge or a straight-sided can to measure.

Remember to soak the ground until you start to see runoff, pause for an hour or so, and then resume watering until you get the two inches. “You want the top 10 to 12 inches of soil to be quite wet,” says Richter. “That’s where 90 percent of the roots are.”

Insects

Bark beetles, such as emerald ash borers and bronze birch borers, are a less common cause of the decline of the top of your tree, and most commonly affect very young or old trees, says Richter.

Emerald ash borer beetle. | GardenersPath.com
Emerald ash borer beetles can cause problems for trees.

Check for entry and exit holes in the branches and trunk. If woodpeckers are around, that can be a clue that beetles are present.

If you do indeed suspect an insect infestation, an insecticide might be effective, says Richter, “But the bugs are often inside, under the bark and out of reach of the chemicals.”

Inadequate Soil

Soil problems can also lead to treetop death.

Thin, inadequate soil may not provide enough stability or nutrients to maintain a healthy tree. Rocky soil can result in similar issues. Sandy soil may not hold moisture well, and can also be a bit of a problem.

Dry Soil Not Ideal for Trees | GardenersPath.com
Dry, sandy soil is not ideal.

Be sure you’re planting trees that, if not native, are at least adapted to your area. “Make sure you know your yard, and know your tree’s necessary growing conditions,” says Richter.

If your tree is planted in a lawn, he cautions against using fertilizers that have herbicides mixed in.

Do you have trees planted in a lawn? To preserve the health of your trees, there are steps you can take- and solutions for trees that are already suffering. Read more now or Pin It for later: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/top-tree-dies/ #trees #treerescue #planthealth #gardening

“Weed killers get washed down into the root system,” he says. “I see a lot of injury to trees from lawn weed killers. Nobody applies them correctly.”

If you must use an herbicide, Richter says, “Don’t use too much and don’t do it before a rain. That combination gets down into nearby trees’ root systems.”

What to Do?

Should you suffer the loss of the top of a tree, immediately cut back the deadwood, suggests Richter. In fact, Richter recommends you bring in a certified arborist to help you remove the dead material properly.

“Anybody can go out and buy a chainsaw and trim trees,” he says, “but we see a lot of bad pruning jobs by uncertified hacks, and we see the trees suffering because of it.”

Hire a Certified Arborist to Deal with Dead Branches | GardenersPath.com

If you need to find a certified arborist in your area, Richter suggests visiting the Trees Are Good website.

Water and fertilize your sick tree, too. And hope. “There’s not much else you can do,” says Richter.

The Good News

Mother Nature is resilient. She wants her creations to thrive, and often they do.

Our cedar elm miraculously sprouted a new leader — a pair of leaders, actually, as if the extra was there for insurance. Many years later, the elm is thriving in its new location.

The red oak’s misfortune is more recent, and while we’ve cut the dead leader and limbs, we still await its ultimate fate.

A dead tree top among thriving foliage. | GardenersPath.com

The rest of the oak seems fine, so we’ll hope it shoots up a new leader and continues to provide shelter for the flippin’ squirrels who leap from its boughs over to our magnificent fig tree for a tasty snack. Grrrr…

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do to remedy the problem, and what was the result? Share in the comments section below.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Scott Neubeck
Scott Neubeck (@guest_4443)
1 year ago

The tree in the picture was healthy last year, no signs of distress. I am in souther be New Hampshire and we had a fairly mild winter but there extreme swings in the weather, very warm one week and then cold and it has been a rainy spring.
There were no buds on this tree and now there is only new growth on a couple of the limbs. What would cause this and is there any chance for the tree to recover?

Thanks,
Scott

Linda Hart
Linda Hart (@guest_4540)
1 year ago

I had two trees die from the top down at our beach home on a barrier island off of N J. I was sick over it because there are not many trees that grow on the island. I had a tree service do a deep organic fertilizer and the tree looked good this Spring. Then in June the top died ,I had the same tree service come and remove all of the dead lead branches. I was so sad seeing the new shape of my larger tree. I had questioned if it could be the weed killer that was being… Read more »

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cyndi squires
cyndi squires (@guest_4738)
1 year ago

Gretchen thanks for this article, I live on the coast of NC and having gone through a significant hurricane last fall, the top 10 feet or so of my sycamore tree appears to be dead but the bottom (around the base) is producing new branches? Could the condition of the top be due to insult from the storm (which was followed by an unusual amount of rain throughout the winter)? I feel like the new growth is a good sign, but also would make for a weird looking tree if I was to leave it, as there is about 6… Read more »

Mike McGuire
Mike McGuire (@guest_5137)
1 year ago

I live in northeastern Ohio about 25 miles, direct line, to Lake Erie. Our village planted a Nyssa sylvatica (sour gum) in the tree lawn (area between sidewalk & street) in spring 2018. A number of branch ends died, but the tree as a whole got through the summer quite well. We use gator bags, & the village keeps them filled the first year. Unfortunately, one of the branch ends that died on my tree was the leader. The remaining two side branches just below where the leader was lost, though healthy looking, seem to be flopping downward with neither… Read more »

Jim keifer
Jim keifer (@guest_6068)
7 months ago

Planted 4 Autumn blaze maples in the heat of summer last year (Alabama) watered as much as I could. They are starting to grow this spring and it looks like two of them have the top main branch dead. They were about 10 feet or so tall when planted. Can they be saved? Thanks.

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Jim keifer
7 months ago

Planting your trees too close together, a lack of adequate irrigation, rocky soil, and other factors can all lead to death of the tops of your trees, and young tree are particularly susceptible to stress until they become established. If you don’t note any insect damage or other obvious issues, you might want to consider transplanting if the trees seem to be crowding each other out. Prune away the dead portions, and provide supplementary water this year as needed. With any luck, they’ll bounce back.

Nina Thomas
Nina Thomas (@guest_6294)
7 months ago

My son planted this little Cherokee dogwood a few years ago. It never thrived, but then last fall the tree service dug it up when they took down a big tree and replanted it, and since then it has looked dead, especially the leader. This spring it surprisingly bloomed beautifully, but the branches are still bare aside from the blooms. I’m going to try to remove the dead leader and see what happens!

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Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Nina Thomas
6 months ago

Lovely blooms! Please let us know how the pruning goes.

Beth
Beth (@guest_6377)
7 months ago

I live in west Texas and have a very young ash tree (about 8 ft tall) that we just planted last year.. We had a very strange winter where it snowed 8 inches… our poor ash never came back.. However, we have recent found it sprouting suckered but nothing from the few branches at the top… I have done a few scrape tests along the trunk and only the bottom foot and a half is soft every where else seems quite dead… how should I cut it to hopefully get it to come back???

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Beth
6 months ago

Thanks for your message, Beth. Unfortunately, if such a small portion of your tree is showing signs of life, removal may be your only option. Stressed trees produce suckers, and these are called “watersprouts” when trees develop them higher up the trunk. Unfortunately, wounding or stressing the tree further via pruning can actually encourage more of these suckers to grow. Suckers also tend to develop when an established tree is approaching the end of its life. Can you post photos here? It might be time to consider calling in a professional arborist to assess your tree, and check the terms… Read more »

Yusun Abrahams
Yusun Abrahams (@guest_7322)
6 months ago

I planted a young red bud last spring, and most of the bottom branches have started to come back and bud this spring, however the leader and all the branches from the leader are completely dead. I have broken off the dead smaller branches, but am wondering if I have to remove the leader too? It’s almost half of the height of the tree that’s dead… could I train a new leader? Or would I be better off getting a new tree?

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Yusun Abrahams
6 months ago

Redbuds are such beautiful trees- sorry to hear that yours has lost its leader! Have you been able to determine the cause of the dieback? If fungal disease is at play, or issues with the soil, you may need to make amendments or provide treatment to save it. You should be able to train a new leader, if you are able to prune away any competing leaders. Select the strongest, straightest branch to establish the new leader. And when you are pruning, keep in mind that it’s best to make your cuts at a 45-degree angle with a sharp tool… Read more »

Yusun Abrahams
Yusun Abrahams (@guest_7345)
Reply to  Allison Sidhu
6 months ago

This is great advice, thank you! I don’t know the cause of the dieback. Other plants and shrubs seem to be growing fine in the very same bed around the tree… so would you recommend waiting until winter to cut the current leader in order to train the new leader? I didn’t know that about the angled cuts of pruning! Learning so much… thanks!

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Yusun Abrahams
6 months ago

I’m actually going to add a caveat to the advice I gave you before, Yusun. Pruning when dormant during the winter is recommended for many types of trees. However, since redbuds bloom in the spring, bud set begins in the fall and winter, and you don’t want to risk cutting those developing buds off. When your tree has finished blooming, I’d go ahead and prune. But take your climate into consideration. I’m not sure where you are located, but if you live in a place that typically gets a lot of rainy weather in the summer, it may be best… Read more »

Yusun
Yusun (@guest_7445)
Reply to  Allison Sidhu
6 months ago

Ok yes good advice, thanks Allison! We live in central Ohio. We get most of our rain in the spring and it dries up quite a bit in the summer and into the fall. I’ll wait until our rainy season slows down (we are getting a ton of rain right now) before pruning. I appreciate your feedback so much!!!!

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Yusun
6 months ago

You’re welcome! 🙂

William
William (@guest_7582)
6 months ago

Thank you for the advice. I will get out there and trim my cedars.
Probably caused by rocky conditions and drought in the Texas hill country.

Lisa S
Lisa S (@guest_7660)
5 months ago

I am not sure if I killed my trees by over pruning. The tops look dead and the bottoms are growing. Please offer suggestions.

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
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Reply to  Lisa S
5 months ago

What kind of trees are you growing Lisa, and where are you located? Can you upload photos here?

Allison
Allison (@guest_7928)
5 months ago

I have a weeping cherry tree that I planted last year in my beautiful Idaho front yard and it did well the first year. Unfortunately, a deer decided it would be a perfect tree to scrape this past fall/winter. I wrapped it in coban to try to protect it. This spring the top is refusing to blossom and appears to be dead, but the bottom has water sprouts on it. I have been watering and fertilizing it anyway to see if it will come back. Do I cut the dead top off? Do I leave the water sprouts? I hate… Read more »

Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak (@mattsuwak)
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Reply to  Allison
5 months ago

So most cherry trees (not all) are actually grafted trees. That means two different trees are combined into a single plant by finding plant A with desirable root stock and grafting it to Plant B with desirable growing habit. You can tell if yours is grafted by looking at the base of the tree trunk. A grafted tree usually has a telltale bump, scar, or weird mixture of two types of bark at the base of the trunk.   When those water sprouts are coming up from the bottom of the tree, it’s actually the root stock trying to “take… Read more »

Cindi
Cindi (@guest_8067)
5 months ago

I have 10 3-year-old willow trees, they were twigs when I planted them. They are about 7 ft tall now but this spring the main trunk died (no leaves) but several starts from the bottom. Should I take out the tree or just the dead trunk and branches? My soil is over farmed and is mostly clay.

Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak (@mattsuwak)
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Reply to  Cindi
5 months ago

You could probably remove only the dead material from the plant. Willows are vigorous growers. I’d recommend removing the dead material this year, then next year when the plant starts producing more green in the springtime removing all of the other suckers except for one. You want to have a strong central leader and not a bunch of competing shoots for the healthiest tree you can find. If you attach a photo of the tree(s) in question I could help out even further!

Gary Evans
Gary Evans (@guest_8185)
5 months ago

Thanks for sharing these insights! This is really great!

Linda
Linda (@guest_8376)
4 months ago

Hello! Calgary, Alberta here (4a). I have a Harvest Gold/Tilia Mongolica/Linden hybrid. We planted it last summer (July) and it seemed quite happy at my small front lawn with full sun. We mulched it and kept the sleeve on (to prevent it from having the same fate as our crab apple that died the previous year from hungry bunnies) through the winter. This year, I noticed that it took unusually long to break from dormancy. I gave it the ‘scratch test’ and noticed green cambium, and finally saw some new buds forming (dormant buds remained dormant) a month ago. These… Read more »

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tree removal
tree removal (@guest_9831)
2 months ago

Really good article. Thanks for sharing those tips. Found them really helpful.