Is my shrub dead?

There are a few times of the year when a shrub might have you questioning if it’s alive or dead. Often, this is in the spring or fall when many plants are going through a noticeable transition phase. In spring, their branches are bare and should start budding up and leafing out, but it might feel like it’s getting too late. In fall, they’re losing their foliage, but sometimes it might feel like it’s happening prematurely. But what if it’s not either of those times of year? Your plant might just be going through a stressful time. If heat or overwatering overwhelm a plant, sometimes it will drop all of its leaves. This kind of dramatic event can kill a plant, but many shrubs have been known to bounce back!

So instead of being left to worry what’s going on, take these 3 easy steps to see if your plant is still alive. 

A gardener scrapes bark off of a branch revealing green underneath
Gardener is using the sharp side of a pair of pruners to scrape bark off of a branch
Step 1 – Scrape test

Take a pair or pruners or a knife and scrape a stem. Check the spot to see if it has green or tan underneath. Green means your plant is still alive (left). Light tan means the branch is dead (right). If your scrape reveals tan, try another branch. Sometimes a branch or two will have died back, but the rest of the plant is fine.

A gardener bends a stem of a shrub
A gardener bends a stem of a shrub
Step 2 – Bend stems

Take a stem and hold it in two places. Gently bend it and if it the stem is rounded, it’s likely still alive. If it snaps easily, that one is dead. Check another stem. 

A close look at new buds forming at the base of a hydrangea
A shrub that isn't yet showing signs of life in the springtime.
Step 3 – Growth check

Keep an eye out for growth at the base of the shrub. There are times when the top has died back, but the roots are alive to push up new growth from the base (left). This can take time. So, wait a few weeks before you dig up your plant.

If video helps you work through a problem a little easier, check out our how-to here.

Comments (6)

  1. Ron Mack

    Happy New Year Kristina. I enjoy your informational news email. This spring is going to be interesting to see what plants have survived the “Arctic Blast” that we all experienced. We’ve noticed several already that aren’t looking so good like our Gardenia and Rosemary. We’re live in zone 7-A of northwest North Carolina. Happy Gardening. Take care and God bless.

    • Kristina Howley

      Happy New Year Ron! So glad you’ve been enjoying the newsletter. Hopefully we’ll all be able to report back in the spring with less damage than we fear. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for my sensitive plants too.

  2. Sandra Millar

    Is there a good reference where individual situations/location details can be entered, resulting in a list that fits our specific garden.
    I live on the edge of Zone 5, but it is very cold in the winter, so that several plants would die.
    I think there is an on-line site but I have never found it.
    Many thanks, Sandra

    • Kristina Howley

      I wish I had a resource to share with you about searching exact criteria like this, but the best advice I can give would be to search for plants that are hardy to one zone colder.

  3. Patty

    Hi Kristina,
    Also a 5b here. Worried about my black lace elderberry – I haven’t had it a full year. When do leaves start to appear usually?
    It looks like it has life using your tips on scaling the stems.

    • Kristina Howley

      Hm. I have two Black Lace elderberries, one in a full sun spot and one in a part sun spot. The full sun one has leafed out quite a bit, while the part sun one has just budded up a bit. Feel free to email me some photos of your plants!

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Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.


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