University of Maryland Extension

Trees and Shrubs Declining or Dying

natural decline shade tree
Branch dieback in crown of tree

Key Points

  • Declining trees and shrubs can exhibit multiple symptoms. Sometimes the decline is caused by disease or insects but the majority of plants do not thrive and possibly die because of other factors such as site conditions, weather, or how the plant is being taken care of (plant culture), etc. These are referred to as abiotic problems.
  • Plants can decline over a number of years. Unfortunately, by the time a stressed tree or shrub is noticed it is often too late to save it.
  • Learn about the plants in your landscape. For example, many pines exhibit older needle yellowing and shedding in the fall.  This can look concerning but it is a normal process.


  • A tree that is in decline lacks vigor, has reduced growth and shows other stress symptoms.

  • Other symptoms include small leaf size, wilt, leaf scorch, early fall color, early leaf drop, and/or dieback. Large crops of fruit or nuts and the development of suckers or water sprouts from the base of the tree or along the trunk, or mushrooms developing on the branches, trunk or on the roots can also be an indication that the plant is struggling. 

  • 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.

Additional Resources

Rev. 2019

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