If your tree is looking a bit … off, you might be asking yourself “is my bonsai tree dead?” Most bonsai are pretty resilient if you’re providing good care, but sometimes things go south and trees die. In this article, we’ll learn how to find out if your tree is still alive.
Let’s face it – life happens. Things come up, or you go out of town, and watering your bonsai tree slips your mind. Or maybe you’re diligent with your watering regime, and you end up inadvertently overwatering your tree.
Maybe you’re like me, and overfertilized a tree to death, or neglected to bring a subtropical tree inside when the weather dropped below 50 degrees. There are a hundred ways to make your bonsai tree die.
It’s important to understand that it’s possible to kill only a portion of your tree. For instance, a single branch may die off while the rest of the tree is healthy. So even if you see warning signs, your tree might still be alive.
Is Your Bonsai Tree Dead? Here are the Warning Signs.
Bonsai trees generally don’t die overnight. You’ll typically start noticing warning signs that trouble is ahead, and understanding what those warning signs are can help you course correct before it’s too late.
There are many normal reason for a tree’s color to change, including seasonal changes. But if the foliage on your tree begins to change for no apparent reason, it could be cause for concern.
On conifers, like Junipers, you may see the lush green color of the leaves start to become pale and dull. If this trend continues, it will eventually turn a yellowish brown color. Discoloration on conifers often happens when the tree isn’t receiving the required amount of light (e.g. when it’s living indoors). It can also happen if the tree doesn’t receive enough water and begins to dry out.
You might see something like this and think “is the branch on this bonsai tree dead?” It could be a sign that you’re overwatering your tree and causing the roots to rot from being constantly soaked in water.
For deciduous trees, like maples, discoloration in the foliage could be caused by continued exposure to the afternoon sun. This is known as leaf burn. Alternatively, like the conifers, under watering a deciduous tree will caused the leaves to dry up and eventually fall off completely.
Brittle Branches & Foliage
Changing consistency of foliage, going from soft and pliable to hard and brittle, is another red flag of trouble. Brittleness can also appear on branches. Branches that were once soft and pliable that become brittle could be dying.
Conifers keep their soft foliage year round, even in winter. Brittle foliage could be a sign of under watering. It could also be a sign that the tree isn’t getting enough light.
For deciduous trees, brittleness follows discoloration and happens before the tree starts dropping its dried up leaves. If this is happening outside of the normal cycle of the tree (e.g. deciduous trees naturally drop their leaves in the fall), then something may be wrong.
Checking for Life
If your tree is discolored or brittle, the next step is to check to see if the tree is still alive. Luckily, there is a simple way to test this, and you won’t need any special tools to do so.
The Fingernail Test
Look at your tree. The bark of your tree protects the life underneath it. To see if your tree (or a particular branch) is still alive, all we have to do is remove a small portion of the top brown bark to see if the next layer of the tree is green. Green is the color of life.
Start in an inconspicuous and scrape off a small portion of the bark with your fingernail. If you don’t find green under the surface, keep scratching. When you get down to hardwood and don’t uncover green, your tree has died (or, at least that portion of it).
When checking a brach, start with the tip first. If it’s dead, then move back toward the trunk and try again. Sometimes branches die from the tip back, and if the end of the branch has died, you can cut back to the portion that still shows green.
Dead Branches as a Feature
If a branch on your tree has died, it might not be a bad thing after all. Often dead branches, often referred to as “deadwood,” become a feature of the tree rather than an issue with the tree.
In fact, all of the most famous juniper bonsai in the world have considerable deadwood incorporated in their design. The deadwood is dyed white to contrast the living tissue that remains.
Even if your bonsai tree has died, all is not lost. Now you have a new pot for your collection, and hopefully some knowledge of what you did wrong so you can change how you approach bonsai tree care next time. Try not to get discouraged, every hobbyist asks the tough question “is my bonsai tree dead?” at least a few times in their journey to bonsai greatness.