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How to Tell if a Branch is Dead or Dormant

As a Chicago-based technical advisor for The Davey Institute, Chelsi Abbott often fields questions from Great Lakes and Ontario residents regarding late frosts and leaf out. They wonder if the tree or shrub may have suffered winter damage—or is it just late to wake up? Chelsi encourages worried woody-plant lovers to perform a simple “scratch test” to set their minds at ease. 


A scratch test is easy to do. You can use a fingernail or clean, sharp tool to gently scrape away at a branch’s bark. If this reveals green and spongy fibers, all is well. If the scratch test shows brown and brittle wood, the branch is dead and it should be pruned.

Image credit: By AnRo0002 - Own work, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons