University of Maryland Extension

Natural Decline

natural decline shade tree
Branch dieback in crown of tree

A tree that is in decline lacks vigor, has reduced growth and shows other stress symptoms. You may also notice small leaf size, wilt, leaf scorch, early fall color, early leaf drop, and/or dieback. Other symptoms include abnormally large crops of fruit or nuts and development of suckers or water sprouts, or mushrooms along the tree trunk. These symptoms usually progress over a number of years.

In many cases, it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of decline. Decline may be triggered by a single factor, which weakens the tree and makes it more susceptible to environmental stress, or it may be caused by a combination of factors. Sudden dieback of buds and twigs (a shock response), followed by other decline symptoms usually indicates that the decline is caused by a single factor, such as severed roots or defoliation by insects. A tree that shows reduced growth, along with foliar symptoms, prior to branch death, is usually in decline as a result of chronic or long-term stress factors. These may include compacted soil, drought, girdling roots, salt damage, or chronic insect or disease damage.


Strategies for trees in decline depend on the extent of the decline. If stress symptoms are noticed early, careful maintenance techniques, such as watering, mulching, fertilizing, or pruning, as needed, may improve the tree vigor. Chronic stress causing factors should be treated individually. A tree in serious decline rarely regains its ornamental value or vigor. Remove trees with severe dieback and replace with trees better suited to the site.

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