It can be hard to say goodbye to a tree. The value they add to the landscape and your property is immense, and of course, it can be expensive and troublesome to remove them. But if a dead or diseased tree can’t be saved, not removing it can lead to even more headaches. Other trees can become infected, or the tree can fall, injuring someone or damaging your home.  Here are five signs you need to cut down a tree.

Crown Dieback

Crown dieback is a symptom, not a disease. But it’s an indication your tree is dying. It’s a visible sign of oak decline if it’s an oak tree, especially if its an older tree, or it’s in a crowded spot. Other species of tree can suffer from dieback too, and it’s often a sign the tree has significant health problems. It’s also common in trees suffering from disease, insects or drought. If you have oaks that are dying, there is little you can do to save them. Oak decline is a natural part of the ecosystem, but you can hasten their removal. Oak wood is heavy, and can cause lots of damage to people, pets, or property if it comes crashing down. If you see the leaves thinning out or not growing, consider hiring professionals to remove the tree in question.

Beech Bark Disease

Beech bark disease
Beech bark disease. Credit: Plant Image Library. CC by SA 3.0.

The American beech tree is native to Virginia, but it’s also susceptible to beech bark disease. The problem starts with an insect called the beech scale. The insects create an entryway for the fungus to enter the tree, and as the infection grows worse, it kills the beech. Symptoms include a white waxy substance on the trees secreted by the insects and leaves that don’t fully form and turn yellow in the summer. Another telltale sign is the bright orange color of the fungus when you cut away the bark. Pesticides and fungicides may help control the bark disease, but it’s tricky and expensive. Your best bet may be removing the affected trees and replacing them.

Botryosphaeria Fungus

Botryosphaeria fungus-caused canker on a green ash tree. Credit: Theodor D. Leininger, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org, CC by 3.0.
Dr. Elizabeth Bush
Dr. Elizabeth Bush

If you spot discolored and peeling bark on your trees, your trees may be infected with one of several species of the fungus Botryosphaeria. It can also look like wilted or dying branches on a tree that looks fine otherwise. The fungus will attack any of dozens of tree species, from apple trees to zelkova, and it especially likes dead wood.

The best way to fight the fungus is by keeping your trees healthy and low stress, and removal may be the best way to protect other trees. “There are no effective fungicide controls for botryosphaeria dieback. The best defense against this common disease is to make sure your trees are healthy by giving them the right amount of water and nutrients. It’s also important to avoid plant stress and injury,” said Elizabeth Bush, an extension plant pathologist at the Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Thousand Cankers Disease

Thousand cankers disease
Thousand cankers disease. Credit: Jeffrey Beall, CC by SA 2.0.

This infection is as dire as it sounds. If you spot black cankers, your tree starts to die quickly, and you see visible tunnels, it’s probably thousand cankers disease, a tree disease confirmed in Virginia. A quarantine issued in 2011 has since expired, but tree experts ask property owners in Virginia to keep an eye out for its reappearance. The disease is caused by a fungus that grows around the pupal chamber of a certain kind of beetle. The beetles then tunnel into the tree, creating the canker. If there are enough cankers, it will kill the tree.

Emerald Ash Borer Damage

Emerald ash borer
Emerald ash borer. Credit: USDA, CC by ND 2.0.

If your ash trees show signs of emerald ash borer damage, your best method of control is to remove it and replace it with a tree of a different species. The emerald ash borer was first detected in the U.S. in Michigan in the early 2000s, and since then, it has spread and devastated ash trees across the country. The city of Richmond Department of Forestry confirmed the presence of the emerald ash borer inside city limits in 2019.

Signs of Emerald Ash Borer Damage

Signs of EAB damage include:

  • Distinct D-shaped exit holes in the bark where the mature insect exits.
  • S-shaped tunnels on the surface under the bark.
  • Sprout growth at the tree base.
  • Unusual activity by woodpeckers.
  • Die-back on the top third of the tree.
  • Vertical splits in the bark.

If the damage isn’t too bad, treatments may prevent the tree from dying, but they’re not a sure thing. Consult a professional, because the EAB has proven to be a destructive pest that even experts have not been able to contain.

There’s one more word of caution, once you’ve had a tree removed. If you break it down and use it for firewood, do not transport it outside the city of Richmond. Arborists and forest management experts say this is how pests like the emerald ash borer, or fungal infections spread. Save other trees and make sure you use the wood close to the spot where the tree once grew. It’s better for the environment, and for pest and disease eradication efforts everywhere.

Elizabeth Bush is a research associate senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. She serves as a diagnostician and co-manager in the Plant Disease Clinic at the Virginia Cooperative Extension.