It can be hard to tell if a branch is dead or just late in producing leaves or flowers. Deadwood doesn’t suddenly turn a different color or put out a sign saying “I’m done. Please prune me.”
So how do you know what’s truly deadwood and what’s still living?
Here are some ways to identify deadwood.
- It’s brittle. Try bending it. If it breaks, it’s dead.
- There are no buds or leaves. This may not be helpful in spring, but if there’s no growth by summer time then the branch is probably dead.
- It’s a different color or texture. This usually is only a subtle difference, unless the branch has been dead for a long time (in which case it’s pretty obvious).
- It’s warm to the touch in summer. Live wood is cool.
- You can see a spot where the branch is clearly bent or broken. It’s likely dead beyond that point.
You’ll often read about the “scratch test” as a way to identify deadwood. This involves scratching off the bark (using pruners or a sharp object) to see if the wood below is grey (dead) or green (living). True, this is a clear test of whether or not the wood is still alive. But only do it if you’re pretty sure the branch is dead; scraping off the bark creates a wound that saps the plant’s energy and leaves an entrance for disease and decay.