What to do when the top of your tree dies

I don’t know if we’re cursed or what, but we have two trees that exhibit a strange, warped phenomenon in which the top part of the trunk – the “leader” – has died, taking several scaffold branches with it and dropping them. What remains is an unsightly, short stem surrounded by perfectly healthy branches.

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

The cedar elm was quite young, only about 8 feet tall, when its top died. The tree was located in a prime spot in our corner suburbia, so we dug it up and moved it to our side yard, behind the fence.

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We didn’t hold out much hope for this, because when we took off the top, all that was left was a crazy array of lateral branches branching out from the center trunk.

The red oak was about 10 years old and 40 feet tall when its top died. As large as it was, the massive scaffold and side branches also became firewood.

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

common causes

What is the reason for the death of the top part of the tree? It could be any one of many things. Let’s examine them in more detail:

root tension

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

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

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Recent construction near the tree, or soil compaction for other reasons, can put pressure on the roots. “In suburban environments, we build houses, roads 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 block the flow of sap.

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


Lack of sufficient water can also lead to death of the top part of the tree. “Make sure your tree soaks well on a rarefied basis,” says Richter. “Most of our water is very little.”

Drought can be a problem.

Richter suggests watering to a depth of two inches every two weeks if 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, wait for an hour or two, and then start watering until you’ve got a couple inches. “You want the top 10 to 12 inches of soil to be fairly wet,” says Richter. “That’s where 90 percent of the roots are.”


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

Emerald ash borer beetles can cause problems for trees.

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

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If you really suspect an insect infestation, an insecticide can be effective, says Richter, “but the insects are often under the bark and out of reach of the chemicals.”

poor soil

Soil problems can also lead to tree death.

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

Dry, sandy soil is not ideal.

Make sure you are planting trees that are, if not native, at least well suited to your area. “Make sure you know your yard, and 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.

“Weed killers get washed into the root system,” he says. “I see trees hurt too much with lawn weed killers. Nobody applies them correctly.

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

What to do?

If you should notice damage to the top of a tree, cut away the deadwood immediately, suggests Richter. In fact, Richter recommends bringing in a certified arborist to help you properly remove dead material.

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

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

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Water and fertilize your sick tree as well. and hope. “There’s nothing else you can do,” says Richter.

Good News

Mother Nature is flexible. She wants her creations to flourish, and often it does.

Our cedar elm miraculously sprouted a new leader—a pair of leaders, really, as if to spare for insurance. Many years later the elm is flourishing in its new location.

Red Oak’s misfortune is recent, and while we’ve cut out the dead leader and limbs, we’re still waiting on his final fate.

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

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

photo credit: shutterstock.