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How to tell if your plant is dead

This holly plant looks dead but actually has green buds on the stems.
This holly plant looks dead but actually has green buds on the stems.
Kim Willis

It’s June and after the hard winter we had you may still have some plants that look dead or dying. Should you give up now? Yank them out or cut them down and plant something else? The answer is maybe. Certain plants may be taking longer than normal to leaf out or may be coming back from the root system when they normally would be leafing out from branches. But some plants are dead or have large parts that have died. Here’s how to determine whether to give up on that plant skeleton in your yard.


If your roses have branches that appear dead you can now prune them all off. They aren’t coming back. Some roses will have shoots popping out of the ground; they are coming back from the root system. Whether you keep these depends on what type of rose you have. If the rose was grown on its own roots, as many landscape/shrub roses are its fine to let the shoots develop. Eventually you’ll get the same flowers you had previously.

However if the rose was a grafted rose, as most tea roses, tree roses, grandifloras and many others are, what comes back from the root generally represents the hardy rootstock that the floral part of the rose was grafted on to. It may or may not have a flower you’ll want to keep, but the flower won’t be the one you had previously. Most rootstock has small single or semi-double flowers that bloom once a year. You can keep it and see if you like it, it won’t bloom until next year probably, or simply dig these out and plant new roses.

Fruit trees

Fruit trees that have not leafed out at all may be dead. They too may come back as sprouts from the roots, but most fruit trees are grafted and the sprouts will not produce a good fruiting tree. Cut off sprouts coming from the ground or below the graft bump. Examine the fruit tree branches carefully for leaf buds before cutting them off. Prune off dead limbs in stages, looking for green wood as you prune. The green will show just under the bark. Green limbs should still bend without snapping.

If the tree was young, with few branches, scratch the stem and see if you see any green under the bark. Anytime you see any green the tree has a chance to come back and you should leave it a bit longer. If the branches are brittle and snap, if you see no signs of buds or green wood then the tree is probably dead and should be removed.

Ornamental trees and shrubs

Ornamental trees and shrubs that are deciduous can have any dead looking branches trimmed off. Just as with fruit trees above look for buds and green wood to determine how much to prune. However if some of these appear dead on top but do sprout from the roots you may have a chance to save the plant. A few ornamentals are grafted, but most of these plants grow on their own roots and sprouts from the roots will look the same or similar to what you had before.

It can take a long time for the tree or shrub to reach the size it was before the top died. A few things may have some differences if they return from the roots after losing all their woody parts. Some may have lost variegation or have a different leaf color. You may want to let them grow a year or two to see how they develop before you decide to replace them.

Evergreens, both broad leaved and needled can be tricky. With broad leaved evergreens like holly and azaleas you can apply the green wood test and look for buds fairly easily. For needled evergreens look carefully for buds along dead looking stems or branches with reddish brown needles. Look on branch tips for clusters of new buds. If you see buds, the browned needles will eventually be replaced. You will just need to be patient. Trimming all the browned areas off, without checking for buds, may result in no return of green. You can trim a branch back to where you see green buds to remove some of the unsightly needles and dead branches. Make your cuts just above a node on the stem showing a green bud or new leaf.

Stems that snap off easily are dead. Prune dead areas off evergreens, using the same method for other trees, prune a bit, and then check for green wood. Most established evergreens will not be completely dead from the winter cold but some will take a long time to regain a pleasing shape and size. You’ll need to decide if you want to replace them or wait it out.


Most herbaceous perennials should have returned by now. There are a few notorious slow developers, like hardy hibiscus that are always late. However it doesn’t hurt to let perennials sit in the ground a bit longer, sometimes you’ll be surprised at a late revival. If there is a gap in the garden where the plant was and you want to fill it you can replace it with a similar plant and just say to heck with it or put some annuals there until next year. Sometimes a plant will sit for a year in the ground and then return but this is fairly rare.

When replacing plants you may want to evaluate whether it was this harsh winter that actually killed the plant or zone denial. If you were lucky enough to get a plant growing out of its rated hardiness zone for a few years because our winters were milder than normal, then you are taking a chance when you replace the dead plant with the same variety. Also remember that plants that weren’t in the right location, were struggling from disease or insect attacks may have died regardless of how cold the winter was.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

How to prune spring flowering shrubs

How to grow trout lilies in the garden

Tips on choosing landscape shrubs

You can read the authors weekly garden blog at

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