How To Tell if a Conifer Tree Is Dying

Conifer trees are probably one of my favorite tropical plants, and they include a diverse number of tall–and pretty old–species. And like many other interesting plants, conifer trees can grow pretty much anywhere in the world–even in temperate regions like the United States. However, despite their abundance, diversity, and hardiness, conifers are still living organisms and can die.

You can tell if a conifer tree is dying if you notice the plant has brown leaves, pale shoots, or root damage. Other clear indicators of death include leaf, bark, and cone loss, brittle barks, rot, leaning–and small holes with or without the presence of pests.

However, the best way to confirm if a conifer tree is dying is to verify if it has more than one of the symptoms I mentioned since some might be part of the tree’s growing cycle. In this article, I’ll discuss what these symptoms look like in conifer trees and why your plant might be dying. Keep reading to learn how to tell if a conifer tree is dying.

1. Brown Leaves

It’s impossible to think about plants without picturing their beautiful green leaves–even if not all plants have green leaves. And with trees like conifers, their evergreen designation describes their all-year growing habits and leaf color.

Therefore, an excellent way to tell if the tree is dying is if it has brown leaves instead of its usual green color. The brown leaves are a sign the conifer is developing several issues in its root or shoot system.

And while brown leaves are typical of watering and light problems, this discoloration is markedly different. A dying conifer’s leaves usually start turning brown from the ends of the branches.

2. Bark Loss

Bark loss is another surefire sign your conifer tree is in serious trouble. Like many animals, all plants lose parts as they age, albeit in small amounts. And like human skin, tree barks break and fall off as the plant matures.

The bark can also give you insight into your conifer tree’s health and how well it’s thriving in any environment. Flaking and peeling mean the tree’s not receiving enough nutrients and is starting to lose critical life functions.

A particularly nasty case of bark loss might also indicate your plant has a life-threatening infection or a pest infestation.

3. Leaf Loss

Like bark loss, leaf loss is another sign your conifer tree is dying. And while all plants shed their leaves with the season or when they’re stressed, evergreens like conifers don’t lose leaves dramatically.

Therefore, you should be worried if the plant loses lots of leaves in a short period. This lack of foliage might be because of an underlying condition or pest infestation, but it’s a surefire sign the conifer tree is dead or dying. Leaf loss might also mean the plant has some root damage.

Regardless of the reason for the conifer’s leaf loss, you’ll know your tree is in trouble when other symptoms accompany the leaf loss. It’s also usually preceded by brown or yellow leaves.

4. Pale Shoots

Color plays an essential role in plant and animal physiology, and you can tell how well a plant is doing from the shade of its leaves and branches. Therefore, pale leaves, cones, and branches are an excellent sign your conifer tree is in trouble.

This discoloration is not an exact science, and some environmental factors might be responsible in some instances, but there are a few telltale signs you can use to confirm.

The best way to confirm is to check for paleness under the bark. Healthy conifer trees should have some green under their bark, and a brown layer means the plant’s metabolism has been compromised–leading to a lack of nutrient flow in the tree.

And just like a circulatory or digestive failure in humans, this lack of nutrient flow means the conifer is dead or dying.

Other signs include paleness in cones and leaves, zero sap production, and one or more symptoms in this list.

5. Cone Loss

Plants lose vegetative parts all the time without any problems. After all, it’s how many species reproduce, grow new shoots, or fight enemies. However, some losses can be signs the plant is dying or in serious trouble.

Conifer trees get their names from their cones–a seed-bearing part similar to other plants’ fruits and flowers. These peculiar-looking cones protect the tree’s seeds and are crucial to the conifer tree’s reproduction.

Therefore, losing such a crucial vegetative part is an obvious sign that the conifer is dying. This loss might start in small amounts, usually a few cones every other day, but it can become more severe in less than a week.

6. Small Holes in Barks and Branches

This condition might be more challenging to spot and recognize since most outdoor plants typically have markings and holes all over their shoots. These markings could come from pests, and they might also be scars from diseases or injury.

And while these holes might be harmless to your plant in some instances, you should be worried about a conifer tree with small holes all over. These holes usually mean the plant is primarily hollow inside, and the bark covers nothing but dead wood.

Since they’re all over the conifer tree, the holes are easy to identify, but dead shoots and fallen branches are an excellent way to confirm.

7. Brittle Barks

Conifer trees, like many other trees, have barks that protect the plant’s sensitive interior from the elements. The bark serves the same function skin does in humans and animals and is a great way to check in on your plant’s health.

The bark is the tree’s thick outer covering that sheathes the entire plant’s trunks, branches, and upper root system. It’s an essential part of the plant, and most conifer trees will die or be severely injured if their bark is damaged.

However, this bark may get damaged due to disease, injury, or other environmental factors. And just like pale skin or weak bones in humans, brittle barks mean the plant is ill, infected, or dying.

The bark might fall off as time passes, but it’s not uncommon to have bark that keeps getting thinner without falling off the tree. Therefore, while the conifer might look like it’s thriving, the plant might be dying from exposure.

8. No New Growth

Of course, reproduction and growth indicate a conifer tree’s vitality. This tree typically produces new shoots and limbs all year round, and stunted or slow growth might mean the conifer is dying.

However, the signs might also be more subtle. The conifer might produce fewer leaves and cones than it usually would or shorter branches than usual. In the end, you’ll have to observe the tree for some time to confirm if its growth is stunted.

9. Rot

Rot is always a bad sign, whether you’re a human, an animal, a flowering plant, or an evergreen conifer tree. It’s one of the most obvious signs of death and indicates that an organism’s life processes might have ended for some time.

However, rot can stay localized to specific sites, so you might notice patches on the tree bark or branches. It’s also possible for the decay to affect particular parts like branches and roots without spreading to the rest of the conifer.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the presence of rot is bad news, and an excellent way to tell your plant is dying. Rot might result from some disease, open wounds, or overwatering. And regardless of what’s responsible, it’s usually accompanied by fungus.

You might not notice external signs of rot on your conifer tree if the corruption is starting from the inside, but the presence of fungal growth on the conifer is a dead giveaway.

10. Leaning Trunk

Healthy conifer trees should grow tall, beautiful trunks that can survive any weather or environmental condition. However, disease or pest infestation could affect the tree’s structural integrity and result in leaning trunks.

This condition isn’t only an aesthetic problem but can pose a severe safety risk to you and the rest of your garden. If the tree is leaning, there’s a high chance it could snap in half or fall over entirely.

However, the condition doesn’t develop all at once. You’ll likely notice stunted growth at outer parts like branches and twigs before the leaning trunk becomes apparent. And sometimes, the leaning trunk might be because the tree itself is about to tip over and fall.

11. Presence of Pests in or Around the Conifer Tree

Pests are never a great sign if you’re keeping a garden, tending a farm, or growing evergreens like conifers. And while some of them might be cute additions to your space, they can affect the plant’s health and vitality.

Most pests feed on vegetative parts of plants, resulting in damage, disease, and even death. And while most plants can survive minimal pest damage every other day, an infestation can be deadly.

Therefore, you can tell a conifer tree is dying if there’s a pest infestation in or around the plant.

Most of these pests might make their home near the tree or create holes in its trunk–jeopardizing the conifer’s health and structural integrity. However, some pests might settle for living in the plant’s branches to stay close to their food source.

And while you might not always see the pests–especially if they’re small like termites and ants–the damage and droppings they leave behind are unmistakable.

12. Root Damage

Root trauma is another obvious sign your conifer tree is dying, although it might be hard to notice. However, any damage to a plant’s roots can devastate the entire plant’s well-being. This damage might be due to disease, pests, construction projects, or even lousy soil.

And regardless of the cause, the signs are always the same. You’ll notice pale shoots, bark loss, and rot close to the base of the conifer tree.

Although cutting back the roots might be a great way to deal with the problem, there’s a chance it could shock the plant.

13. Dry and Brown Cambium Layer

The cambium layer is a green cell structure that comprises the growing portion of a tree trunk. It’s right under the bark and is responsible for producing new bark and wood every year. This growth is typical of all trees and is a reaction to auxins, a growth hormone responsible for cell growth.

Auxins are present throughout trees like conifers and transported alongside food and nutrients through the plant’s phloem.

You can tell if a conifer tree is dying if you notice a dry and brown layer under the bark. In fact, any non-green color is a sign that your tree is dead or dying.

This practice of peeling the bark to check the cambium layer is referred to as the Cambium Layer Test and is probably one of the most reliable ways to confirm if your conifer’s dead or thriving.

Why Is Your Conifer Tree Dying?

Now that we know how to tell if a conifer tree is dying, let’s explore the factors that might be responsible for the problem. And while conifers are famously hardy plants, they’re still susceptible to environmental and biological factors. Ultimately, recognizing what’s responsible for your dead or dying plant can help you revive the conifer or prevent the problem in future plants.

Here are a few reasons your conifer tree might be dying:

  • Excessive pruning.
  • Root and shoot diseases.
  • Extreme temperatures.
  • Low humidity.
  • Watering and drainage problems.
  • Composting issues.

This list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but these factors are the most common reasons for health issues in conifer trees. Let’s explore them in deeper detail.

Excessive Pruning

Pruning is beneficial to all plants–from large evergreens like conifers to flowering houseplants like marigolds. However, it’s possible to go overboard when pruning and hurt the plant. 

Overpruned plants might have issues photosynthesizing and might starve to death since they can’t make enough food.

Therefore, I’d recommend trimming conifers or pruning them lightly to prevent death and other health problems.

Root and Shoot Diseases

It’s almost impossible to keep plants without worrying about diseases. They can affect any part of your conifer and result in stunted growth, rot, and death. However, it’s almost always easy to recognize plant diseases and even easier to deal with their effects–especially if you notice the infection early.

Conifers usually deal with fungal diseases, but it’s not uncommon for bacterial and viral infections to affect the plant.

Extreme Temperatures

Temperature plays a big part in every living organism’s well-being, and you’ll need to maintain an optimal temperature to prevent any developmental problems with conifer trees. I recommend air temperatures between 30° and 70°F (-1° and 21°C) to avoid any issues with your conifer.

However, maintaining this temperature is not always possible, and variations can affect your plant profoundly. These variations and extreme conditions could impact root and shoot health and disrupt the tree’s natural life processes–causing death.

Low Humidity

Of course, variable and extreme temperatures aren’t the only environmental factors that could result in plant death. Low humidity can also play a significant role in the conifer’s future. It’ll typically affect transpiration and lead to brown leaves or more serious conditions in severe situations.

I recommend you monitor the humidity levels with a hygrometer in the conifer’s environment if you live in a region that’s especially dry to prevent the problem.

Watering and Drainage Problems

Watering is probably one of the most tricky aspects of keeping plants indoors or outdoors. And you need to establish a consistent watering routine to prevent overwatering and underwatering problems. However, most people fail to account for water quality and drainage–especially when dealing with bigger plants like conifers.

Poor drainage and low-quality water can affect the conifer like other watering-related mistakes, causing leaf loss, shoot problems, and even death.

Composting Issues

Composting is an excellent practice to ensure a plant thrives, but it could be a problem if you don’t do it correctly. And like every other factor, conifers need specific types of composts to thrive. They generally prefer moisture-retaining varieties, and dry compost might affect the conifer’s health.

However, you might need to check in with a professional gardener to ensure your compost is suitable for your conifer tree. 

Also, avoid using old compost that you left on the shelf for months. I’ve discussed this issue further in my article on compost losing nutrients with time. Check it out to learn about the factors contributing to compost expiration and ways of reviving old compost: Does Old Compost Lose Its Nutrients?


Fortunately, you can still revive the conifer tree if you notice it’s dying. All you need to do is figure out the cause, remove the dead and dying, and treat the plant. The treatment methods include everything from mulching if your soil is unsuitable to using pesticides when dealing with an infestation.

This article has all the resources you need to quickly identify problems with your conifer tree so you can save the plant before it’s too late.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

Recent Posts