Is My Bonsai Dead?

If you are new to growing bonsai it can be a little worrying to know if you are looking after it properly or not. It is also very common to think that you might have killed your tree.

The truth is that bonsai trees can die very easily, so it totally a understandable worry to have.

Trees also do not speak to us and they can be slow to react, so it can be hard to actually tell if your tree is dead.

I will be going through what you should look for and what you should do about it, as well as what might have caused it in the first place so you can at least avoid the same mistake again.

Signs Your Bonsai Tree Is Dead

I think it is important to remember that a tree may die in one area, such a branch, or it can be the whole tree.

Of course the whole tree dying is more of a problem than a small section, but the signs are all the same.

Foliage Change

If your leaves or foliage are changing colour, this can be a sign your tree is dying or is already dead.

This can be tricky to read, as pretty much all trees change colour slightly throughout the year and some even drop all their leaves. This is totally normal at times, but in other instances it might not.

Your tree may just be sick, or may be dying. If you notice any sort of change you need to work out what is happening. Usually the more dramatic the change is, the more trouble your tree is in. 

(You can read more information on this – Why Has My Bonsai Lost Its Leaves?)

Brittle Branches

When an area dies it usually starts to dry out as the tree is no longer feeding it water any more. You will usually find that the dead parts of a tree will become brittle and snap very easily.

Sometime you only need to touch them and they break. There can also be a colour change of the branch too, which is another sign that a part of the tree may be dead.

The General Look Of The Tree

I don’t think you need to be an expert to look at tree and realise it is dying. If you have had the tree while it is healthy, you will really be able to notice its general decline in health.

When a tree goes dormant in winter, it will look like its dying. It stops growing and its leaves fall off, but the tree still looks healthy in a way, when you see a dying tree you will really see the difference.

It sounds stupid, but you can sort of tell, even if you are not fully sure. Your instincts will usually be right. 

What To Do If You Think Your Bonsai Tree Is Dead?

If you are looking at the tree and it seems dead, don’t give up just yet. There are a few things you can do to before.

How To Check If Your Bonsai Tree Is Still Growing

The first thing to look for is any signs of growth. You should be looking for any new buds forming, if there is, then you tree will probably bounce back pretty soon.

Fingernail Test/ Scratch Test

If you tree is bare and looking very sad, use your fingernail to put a little scratch into the bark. If your tree is alive you will see some green underneath where you scratched.

If you only see brown, your tree is probably dead. You should scratch a few other areas around the tree, just in case there is a part that is still alive.

Usually you will find trees die back from the outside, in towards the trunk. If you scratch the base of the trunk and it seems dead, then probably the whole tree has died.  

Only Some Areas Of You Bonsai Are Looking Dead

This means your tree is probably going to survive, but at the same time you need to work out what has caused this one section to die to make sure it doesn’t spread to the rest of the tree.

Sometimes the cause is obvious, such as damage, but other times you may need to look a little harder to work out what has caused it, to make sure it’s not going to be a bigger problem.

Be Patient

If you do think your tree is dead, you need to be patient and really wait to make sure. Some trees may act like they are dead, but if you just keep caring for them, they will bounce back.

This can be because they are just very slow at waking up after winter or they are just slow to recover from the work you did or to recover from a pest that attacked them.

Usually if a tree dies, I just keep caring for it for the rest of the growing season. I just keep watering it and trying to make sure it has everything it needs (the tree may need less water as it may not be drinking as quickly).

Sometimes the tree will definitely be dead, other times it may start to show signs of life. Just be patient and keep looking after it. 

Common Causes Of Death In Bonsai Trees

There  is probably an unlimited number of causes, but I will go through some of the most common ones below.

Not Enough Water

This is probably the biggest killer and is totally our fault. If you are watering correctly this shouldn’t happen, but we all make mistakes and forgetting to water a tree is easily done.

Pathogens/Pests

You should be checking your tree often to make sure there are no pests. Pathogens can be harder to spot and sometimes they are unstoppable.

If you think you have a problem with either of these you need to act quickly to try and save the tree and get it back to full health. 

Too Much Stress

Stress is usually caused by us when we work the tree. Too much pruning or root work all at once can really upset the balance of the tree and weaken it too much and the stress causes it to die.

If you are working on your tree you need to make sure it is healthy enough to handle it and you should also not do multiple techniques at once (like pruning the roots and the top at the same time).

Stress can also be caused by our poor care, such as overwatering (or under watering, which I’ve already talked about).

The climate can also stress the tree too. If it gets too hot or too cold, this can damage the tree and cause parts of it, if not all of it to die.

Natural Causes

Sadly trees can just die of natural causes. You can do everything right, but they can still die. There is nothing you can really do against this and we just have to accept it.

Usually this happens with much older trees, which basically die of old age, but it can still happen to younger trees. 

What Do You Do With A Dead Bonsai Tree?

Once you have left it for a good few months and are certain your bonsai tree is dead then you can do a number of different things with it.

Bin In

The most common thing to do is to get rid of it. It’s dead and no longer has any value now.

Keep It

Some people like to keep their dead trees as some sort of reminder, or they just enjoy the beauty that a dead tree can still have.

You may also find a lot of people use the tree to make a tanuki. They use the dead tree along with a new live tree to make a sort of fusion of dead and alive. They can look cool, but they also get a lot of hate in the bonsai world, so it’s maybe not to every ones taste.

(You can read more information about What Is A Tanuki Bonsai?)

Learn From It

The most important thing we must do from any dead bonsai is learn from it. Something went wrong and 99% of the time it was something we did.

We need to learn from this mistake and try and not let it happen again. Killing a tree is a painful and often expensive lesson, so it’s important we learn from it.

Get A New Bonsai

It can be very demoralising if your bonsai dies, especially if you are to blame! However, you cannot let this defeat you.

Everyone kills a tree at some point and we just have to carry on. If your tree dies, you should get a new one and start again, this time with a little more knowledge than the last time.

As you develop your skills you will kill less trees, but it will still always happen. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are it can happen. 

(You can read more information about 6 Ways To Get New Bonsai Trees And Grow Your Collection )

Conclusion

Hopefully now you can spot if your bonsai tree is dying and know what might be the cause of it.

Hopefully if your bonsai tree is in trouble you can manage to save it before it’s too late. However, as I’ve already said, killing trees is normal, it happens to us all.

All we can do is learn from it and try and make it happen less often.