Have your trees joined the walking dead to become zombies?

Posted 10/31/18

A deadly, new and largely unknown threat is taking over some of our trees. This isn’t caused by a pest or bacteria, but rather extreme stress brought about by environmental conditions which cause …

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Have your trees joined the walking dead to become zombies?


A deadly, new and largely unknown threat is taking over some of our trees. This isn’t caused by a pest or bacteria, but rather extreme stress brought about by environmental conditions which cause the trees to look, in some ways, like the walking dead … zombie trees.

Severe weather can cause obvious and immediate damage to homes, roads, power lines and all manner of buildings. What many do not realize is that there are slower, but just as deadly effects that extreme heat and drought can have, as well.

Arborists said that 10 months after Hurricane Harvey, they’re just beginning to see trees showing signs of imminent death. This is an issue that plagues trees across the nation, such as in Texas, where Paul Johnson, the urban and community forestry program leader with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said that although many trees in that region showed signs of life since the hurricane, they may have just been breathing their last breath.

In a USA Today article, Johnson said, “A lot of these trees looked OK, and then over the last month or so, they really started to drop their leaves, and they’re dying back.”

Following any extreme weather event is the perfect time to start checking your trees and identifying issues early. This can prevent damage before it happens, as unstable trees may present a danger to unsuspecting homeowners or passersby. Thankfully, some may be able to be saved while others may be dying and need to be removed.

“You can almost consider these trees as zombies. They are dead, but just don’t know it yet,” Johnston added.

This issue is occurring across Tennessee as well in areas like Memphis and Nashville.

There are numerous issues to look out for to determine if your tree is a zombie, or on its way to becoming one. Look for dead or decaying wood, as dead trees and big, dead branches are a hazard which can fall at any time.

Cracks are an obvious weakness in a tree, and deep splits through the bark that extend into the wood of the tree’s trunk or limbs are a big giveaway. Heavy canopies also catch more wind due to their excessively thick foliage and thicker branches. This can increase the risk of wind damage and uprooting, which is why it’s good to trim your canopies back if they get too thick.

Heavy flooding can cause leaves to wilt and die back early, so be on the lookout for discolored foliage.

Another good tip is checking for root problems. Check to see if the soil near the base of the tree is lifting on one side. If construction has taken place nearby, closely inspect that area. Construction can slice through roots or compact your soil, which reduces root growth. Trees without a strong root system are doomed.

Finally, also check for poor tree architecture, which means to look for excessive leaning of the tree, or branches growing out of proportion with the rest of the tree’s crown. Weird growth patterns can indicate weakness or structural imbalance.

Even if your tree is defective, not all of them need to be removed immediately. Ask a certified — the key word being "certified" — arborist about a tree’s risk level, as there are various ways to prolong and sometimes save the life of your trees.

Re-setting or staking trees that are unstable or leaning is more practical with smaller trees. Cable weak branches or V-shaped limbs and brace split trunks that need extra support.

Proper pruning is good for all trees, and thinning the canopy allows wind to blow through it instead of being trapped like a giant sail.

A slow-release fertilizer replaces lost nutrients from the hot summer and storms, and it may also help improve resistance to damage from diseases, insects and stressful weather.

Planting new trees and shrubs is also beneficial, especially for native trees, as they survive storms more often than exotic ones. Trees grouped in sets of five or more fare intense storms better. Also, adding 2-3 inches of mulch to new trees helps, but keep the mulch away from the trunk.

When hiring an arborist, always check for TCIA Accreditation, ISA Certification, proof of insurance and a list of references. Hiring an unqualified arborist will cost homeowners in the long run, since it may involve purchasing a costly, new tree. Remember, if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

It’s only by educating yourself that you can truly help your trees fight off the zombie horde and avoid adding to the statistics of zombie trees! 


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