When evaluating the safety of a tree, first look at it from a distance and take note if it is leaning, has any dead branches, has sections missing leaves, or if the tree has thin leaf cover. If it has any of these symptoms, it could be dying and at risk of falling.

Large trees are an important and beautiful part of the landscape, but landowners should keep an eye on trees to ensure they are a benefit and don’t pose a danger. Jennifer Behnken, a community forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), says there are important signs to look for to determine if a tree is safe.

“The last thing anyone wants is for someone to get hurt by a falling limb, or even a whole tree that simply gives out and falls,” Behnken said. “Also, a dying tree in the woods has its benefits for decomposers and cavity nesters, but by your house or in your background poses a hazard.”

Behnken said when considering what to do about dying trees in communities and urban areas, safety is the bigger priority. When evaluating the safety of a tree, first look at it from a distance and take note if it is leaning, has any dead branches, has sections missing leaves, or if the tree has thin leaf cover. If it has any of these symptoms, it could be dying and at risk of falling.

“Next, look at the base of the tree from up close and check to see if the soil is raised or cracked, or if there’s an abundance of fungus,” she said. “These can be signs of root decay, which can put the tree in danger of falling over.”

Behnken specified that some mushrooms are living on decay in the soil rather than the tree, and that’s a normal thing to see in nature. Seeing shelf mushrooms and other types of mushrooms on the tree roots, trunk, and branches are greater causes for concern. If unsure, get it checked, as it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Trees can seem remarkably deceptive,” Behnken said. “Their living tissues consist of the leaves and the cambium layer (a thin sleeve on the trunk and branches) carrying water and nutrients throughout the tree. They can remain intact enough to create the illusion of a healthy tree while underneath the heartwood has rotted away, structurally compromising the tree.”

Deep hollowed out areas near the ground are a risk to look out for, including dead branches on the ground or snags that are hanging. Sawdust at the base of a tree could mean it’s a host to ants or being consumed by borers. Carpenter ants nest in dead wood, so that’s a serious sign, she said.

An inspection of the trunk is important to search for cavities, cracks or splits, missing bark, or trees with more than two trunks. If a tree appears to have two trunks, it may be splitting apart, which should be addressed immediately. Especially if a tree extends over a home, or where people travel under, a tree with these signs may need to be removed.

Sometimes two trees may grow together, appearing to be one tree. As they compete for space, neither tree emerges healthy, both grow at an angle over time and the joint of the two trees may split.

“The best thing to do is inspect your trees often and contact a certified arborist if you see signs of damage, rot or insect problems,” Behnken said. “It’s better to be proactive and identify a problem early, than to risk someone being injured if the tree fell suddenly.”

MDC works with landowners to help ensure the health of Missouri’s trees and forests. Find more information about tree care at www.mdc.mo.gov.