Decayed Wood & Hazard Trees

If decayed wood is visible on your tree, is it always a hazard? How do you know if there is decayed wood that you can’t see?

As mentioned in our previous post, there are seven general problems that point to your tree being a hazard tree, and decayed wood is one of them. Hazard trees are definitely still on peoples’ minds these days with the pair of storms we sustained this summer. Many of us experienced tree loss and breakage – some with resultant property damage – and all of us (even the  lucky ones who didn’t lose trees) are wondering which trees might go next. We’re only now, months after the fact, getting caught up on cleanup and precautionary tree pruning and removal related to the storms. Those wind events left major impacts on our properties and our psyches.

In order to answer lingering questions and assuage fears, we’ll cover all the different hazard tree indicators over the next few months. Today we’ll start with decayed wood. Decay is probably responsible for the largest percentage of tree failures (though, honestly, those windstorms blew a lot of conventional wisdom out the window; we saw many seemingly healthy trees simply uproot). While decay is not always visible from the outside, there are several reliable indicators of internal decay.

decayed wood
One indicator of decayed wood is rot fungi.

One indicator is the presence of conks, brackets or mushrooms sprouting from the tree. This is a definitive sign of internal rot and should be taken seriously, especially if the fungi appear on the trunk or visible roots. Different fungi signify different kinds of rot. White rot reduces wood’s stiffness, while brown rot (common in conifers) makes the wood more brittle. Soft rot can lead to both of these deleterious effects. All of these kinds of rot reduce a tree’s structural strength.

Open cavities also signify rot. It’s important to explore the depth of a cavity to determine the extent of decayed wood. However, it’s never advisable to fill the cavity with any kind of “strengthening” material or to excavate the decayed wood from the hole. More harm than good comes from both of these  approaches. Sometimes – as with many kinds of decay – trees are able to compartmentalize the cavity, containing it and halting progress. Our interventions only hinder this process. With other kinds of decayed wood, a tree might attempt to outgrow it, adding more layers of strong, healthy wood to stabilize the weaker portions.

Carpenter ants and their resultant “sawdust” at the base of a tree are another good sign of decayed wood. Other potential signals are cracks, bulges, loosened bark, oozing, and both old and open wounds, all of which should be inspected further to determine the extent of possibly decay.

Sometimes, no sign of decayed wood is visible; even the canopy may appear full and green. However, if you have any reason to suspect there is silent decay going on inside your tree, share your concerns with us. We can talk about the history of the tree and its care and maybe even pound on the trunk from a few different places (something known as “sounding”) to get a sense for what might be gong on inside.

Decayed wood doesn’t always mean the tree must come out. Perhaps some selective pruning will mitigate dangers, or maybe a lack of targets (i.e., houses, outbuildings, landscaping, etc.) means the tree is free to live out its natural life. Ultimately, it’s up to you, the landowner, to make the final decision on the level of risk you’re comfortable with. On our own property, we live with a certain level of risk because we so value the big, beautiful trees circling our home.

If you have any concerns about decayed wood, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We’ll do our best to help inform you in your