Tree Is Dead On One Side – What Causes A Half Dead Tree


By: Teo Spengler

If a backyard tree dies, the mourning gardener knows he or she must remove it. But what about when the tree is dead on one side only? If your tree has leaves on one side, you’ll first want to figure out what is going on with it.

While a half dead tree might be suffering from a variety of conditions, the odds are that the tree has one of several serious root issues. Read on for more information.

Why One Side of Tree is Dead

Insect pests can cause serious damage to trees, but they rarely limit their attack to one side of a tree. Similarly, foliage diseases tend to damage or destroy the entire canopy of a tree rather than only half of it. When you see that a tree has leaves on one side only, it is not likely to be an insect pest or leaf disease. The exception might be a tree near a border wall or fence where its canopy can be eaten on one side by deer or livestock.

When you see that a tree is dead on one side, with limbs and leaves dying, it may be time to call in a specialist. You are likely looking at a root problem. This can be caused by a “girdling root,” a root that is wrapped very tightly around the trunk below the soil line.

A girdling root cuts off the flow of water and nutrients from the roots to the branches. If this happens on one side of the tree, one half of the tree dies back, and the tree looks half dead. An arborist can remove some of the soil around the tree’s roots to see if this is your problem. If so, it may be possible to cut the root during the dormant season.

Other Causes for Half Dead Tree

There are several types of fungi that can cause one side of a tree to look dead. The most prevalent are phytophthora root rot and verticillium wilt. These are pathogens that live in the soil and affect the movement of water and nutrients.

These fungi can cause a decline or even to the death of the tree. Phytophthora root rot appears largely in poorly drained soils and causes dark, water-soaked spots or cankers on the trunk. Verticillium wilt usually affects branches on only one side of the tree, causing yellowing leaves and dead branches.

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Q: Parts of my bottlebrush tree are dying and it appears to be growing leaves and flowers only on one side of the tree. What would cause this?

A: I appreciate you bringing me clippings of the tree. It was especially important to bring in limbs with living leaves still attached. It is often difficult to determine the cause of a problem if the only material I see is totally dead. I was unable to locate any disease or insect damage so the next thing to do is look at the root area. In several recent instances I have found the same damage you described and discovered girdling roots at the base of the tree. A girdling root is similar to having a tourniquet wrapped around your arm. What will eventually happen to your hand if the tourniquet is left in place for a long period of time? Your hand would have the blood supply cut off and the limb would be lost. The same thing can happen to a tree branch if a girdling root is allowed to grow around another tree root.

We recently planted fourteen new trees at the James S. Pages Governmental Complex and every one of these new trees had some degree of girdling and circling roots – from mild to severe. It is important to examine the root ball of any tree or shrub you plant. Remove those girdling or circling roots before you plant. Remove the top layer of soil and root mass so you can examine the root structure carefully. In your situation, the plant has been in the ground for several years but it is still important to remove any roots growing into another root. Cut the girdling root just above where it starts to grow over the other root. You may need to use loppers to make a clean cut. Do not add any amendments to the soil – no black cow or fertilizer. Just be sure the plant is well irrigated for a few weeks to help get it through the shock of losing a major source of water. Keep lawn grass as far away from the roots as possible. Be sure the mulch is not too deep – only about 2-3 inches. Never allow mulch to be piled up around the trunk tissue, which can provide the perfect environment for disease. Allow 18 – 24 inches area around the trunk of the tree or shrub which should contain nothing but soil and air.


Why is one side of my Japanese maple, or just one large branch completely dead?

Extensive damage on a Crimson Queen, lace leaf, weeping Japanese maple.

The damage you see in the above photo is called Vertcillium Wilt. Verticillium wilt attacks all kinds of plants, usually with devastating results. I’ve had it attack at least three if not four of my pretty mature Japanese maples.

Verticillium Wilt is a soil borne, fungal type of disease that affects the plants ability to move water to certain parts of a plant, causing that section of the plant to fail, the die. There is no chemical control, prevention or cure. It’s just something that happens, but . . . but . . . but . . . it is not the end of your tree!

Obvious Verticillium Wilt on Crimson Queen Japanese maple.

I’ve had this happen to at least four Lace leaf weeping Japanese maples in my landscape and it’s happened over a period of time. I’ve read all kinds of explanations of what exactly is going on in the soil to cause this, but quite honestly, in all four cases my soil conditions were different, never soggy, just different soils. Didn’t matter, it still occurred.

You can take my opinion for what it’s worth and my only qualifications to offer such an opinion is to say that I’ve not studied a great deal about plants but I’ve spent the better part of my life, starting at the age of sixteen, I’m 63 today, crawling around in the dirt, working with plants on a daily basis. You can not stare at that much dirt and that many plants and learn valuable things through shear observation. Often times, those observations are more accurate that what you find written in text books.

Believe it or not, this tree will survive and it will recover nicely. And if you remind me I’ll add updated photos to prove it.

My opinion about Verticillium Wilt on Japanese maples?

There is nothing you can do to prevent it and there really is no cure for it except to prune it out of your plant.

There are certain ground rules for planting and caring for Japanese maples and I’ll cover those here. If you follow these recommendations I think you can be assured that you have done everything you can to give your Japanese maples a good home. But Verticillium Wilt can still occur and it is certainly going to be heart breaking, but in most cases the trees can and will recover nicely.

In this case the Verticillium Wilt attacked this tree on two sides. That’s actually unusual.

Things to know about planting Japanese maples.

  1. Japanese maples are an under-story tree and when young they really don’t care for or often don’t do well in full sun. Part shade, part sun is where they are the happiest. Too much shade and they will turn green and lose their beautiful colors.
  2. Japanese maples hate wet feet! Do not plant them in a wet area, or an area where a downspout drains. They love soil that is mostly dry, just moist enough to give them the moisture they need. Never soggy, simply cool and moist to the touch.
  3. Like all plants, Japanese maples will fail quickly if you plant them too deep. It will kill them! Whether your tree is balled in burlap or in a container there is a root crown right at the soil level. When planted that root crown should actually be about 1.5 inches above grade if not higher. Then mound the soil up and over the root ball.
  4. Mulch the tree with about 2″ of bark mulch too keep the soil around the roots cool and moist.
  5. Do not pile mulch up around the stem of the tree. It will rot the bark and kill the tree.
  6. Stake the tree for at least a year so the roots can get established without the wind rocking the tree back and forth constantly.
  7. If planting your tree in clay soil it’s best to plant it even a little higher than described here and back fill around the root ball with the clay that you removed from the hole.
  8. After reading #7 you now know that I am bona fide crazy and full of you know what. What kind of advice is that. It’s good advice, that’s what it is! If you dig a hole bigger than the root ball in clay soil, then back fill around that root ball with some kind of loose, porous material all you are doing is allowing excessive water to enter your planting hole with no way for that water to escape. It’s like filling the bathtub with water and submerging your plant in that water.
  9. Here’s a little known fact that most people don’t understand. Plants, just like people, will drown when submerged in water for an extended period of time. The roots of a plant need to breath. The roots have to be able to transfer oxygen from the air, through the soil, to the roots. If they can’t because the roots are surrounded by standing water that plant is going to die.
  10. Fertilizer is worse than heroin or fentanyl! The plants in your landscape do not need fertilizer. I never fertilize the plants in my landscape at home, or in the landscape plantings around my nursery. They just don’t need it and too much can and will kill them. Especially Japanese maples! They don’t even know what to do with fertilizer!
  11. Don’t believe me? Look here! Those plants have never been fertilized!
  12. Water your Japanese maple as needed. When first planted it will need some water two or three times a week. Not a million gallons of water! Stick your finger in the soil. If it’s dry, water. If it’s cool and moist or soggy don’t water. If you get into a hot and dry situation water your Japanese maple and other plants in your landscape thoroughly about every 9 days.

Back to Verticillium Wilt on Japanese maples!

If your Japanese maple suddenly has a large branch, or a pretty big section of the tree that appears to suddenly just up and die. More than likely it’s Verticillium Wilt. It usually starts with some discolored leaves, then the leaves turn brown and crispy and often will not drop from the tree right away. They just curl up and turn brown and crispy and often stay on the branch. Once your tree gets to this point it’s probably too late to save that particular section of the tree or that branch. Before you remove any branches do a scratch test to make sure that they are dead.

This is how you test to see if a plant, or a branch on a plant has died. Just scratch the bark of your plants with your finger nail. If the tissue below the bark is green and firm your plants are fine. If the tissue is brown and mushy that part of the plant is dead. Once that tissue below the bark becomes brown and mushy there is no saving that part of your plant.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, I’ve experienced Verticillium Wilt on several of the Japanese maples in my landscape and in each case I was able to prune away the dead part of the plant and eventually have the trees make a really nice recovery. After pruning you are obviously left with a big gaping hole in your plant, but you’d be surprised at how fast it will completely fill in. I’m not talking days, weeks or months. It is going to take at least two or three years to fill in nicely. But it’s always worth the wait to save a beautiful Japanese maple.

Japanese maples have really hard wood so you will need really sharp shears of maybe even a pruning saw to remove the dead branches.

Sterilize your tools as you prune!

Before you start pruning clean up the blades of your pruning tools with alcohol wipes or something else suitable. Then clean the blades after each cut.

Do I do that? No. I’m a maniac! I’ve never done that. But I recommend that you do as I say, not as I do. I take chances.

Questions, comments or mean things to say? Post them below and I will respond.


When to Prune

Pruning can actually be done at any time of the year however, recommended times vary with different plants. Contrary to popular belief, pruning at the wrong time of the year does not kill plants, but continual improper pruning results in damaged or weakened plants. Do not prune at the convenience of the pruner, but rather when it results in the least damage to the plant. There is little chance of damaging the plant if this rule is followed. In general, the best time to prune most plants is during late winter or early spring before growth begins. There are exceptions to this rule, and they will be noted under the discussion of the specific plant groups. The least desirable time is immediately after new growth develops in the spring. A great amount of food stored in roots and stems is used in developing new growth. This food should be replaced by new foliage before it is removed if not, considerable dwarfing of the plant may occur. This is a common problem encountered in pruning.

It also is advisable to limit the amount of pruning done late in summer as new growth may be encouraged on some plants. This growth may not have sufficient time to harden off before cold weather arrives resulting in cold damage or winter kill. Prune plants damaged by storms or vandalism or ones with dead limbs as soon as possible to avoid additional insect and disease problems that may develop.


Why Your Tree’s Not Leafing Out Late In Spring

From disease to winter weather blues, trees sometimes have setbacks before they wake up in spring.

Why your ornamental or maple tree did not leaf out

Maple trees are particularly troubled by unseasonably warm days followed by a sudden frost.

Your tree may have jumpstarted growth during a warm stretch in winter, expecting temperatures to stay mild. Then, it lost its progress when the weather turned cool again. There’s a chance your maple will still leaf out, but it might be slow to grow the second time around.

For ornamental trees like plum or cherry, the problem could be fluctuating weather or just fatigue. Like maples, ornamental trees can get tricked into sprouting too early. If that’s the case, they’ll show signs of frost damage and may not bloom again this year. But these trees might also skip out on spring growth simply because they put out a particularly heavy amount of growth last year. In this case, you should expect to see new blooms next spring.

Is your elm or oak tree not leafing out?

Elms and oaks sprout leaves later after the cold weather is gone’. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for these trees to wait until late spring or even early summer to grow leaves.

If your tree looks healthy (which you’ll find out how to determine below), just give it a little time!

Look for disease symptoms on a tree that’s not leafing out

Spring and tree disease go hand in hand, and anthracnose is a disease that can hinder leaf growth on trees like ash, maple, oak or sycamore.

Trees affected by anthracnose might prematurely lose their first flush of leaves early on. If there are any leaves left, they’ll be wilted, curled and brown. After the infection has subsided and if the tree is otherwise healthy, a second flush of leaves should occur.

What to do when your tree is not growing leaves in spring

You’re in luck! Often, a tree problem like this has an easy solution.

Here are a few ways you can help your late bloomer:

    Inspect the tree’s buds and stems. If your tree’s buds are plump on the outside and green on the inside, your tree is healthy and should grow leaves soon! Double check your tree’s health by scratching one of its twigs. Healthy trees are moist and green underneath the bark.

Mulch trees to help them recoup from winter.The proper amount of mulch keeps trees moisturized as they gain enough strength to grow more leaves.

Water. Water. Water.Proper watering helps trees that may be under stress from pests or disease.

Tree not leafing out? Have an arborist diagnose the problem.

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