The living dead may be right in your backyard.

Experts say so-called zombie trees aren't the easiest things for the untrained eye to spot, but you want to catch these massive failing plants before it's too late.

"Zombie trees are still standing, but they might have structural defects or even overall health defects that most homeowners don't recognize," said Jason Reitter, a district manager for Davey, a tree service company in Morris Plains.

Basically, they're dying from the inside out. And typically, it's as a result of weather-related damage, such as a lack of rain or strong winds.

"There are plenty of trees that take on all that wind and don't break, but there definitely can be a crack," Reitter said.

broken fallen trunk old poplar tree

And that crack can be the trigger for decay, which spreads over time.

"It's almost like a cavity of a tooth, if it's left unchecked," Reitter said.

Carolina Christmas Trees
Leyland cypress trees (AP)

Leyland cypresses, a tree used commonly in landscaping, were not a fan of New Jersey's shortage of rain over the summer months. Many fell victim to a serious tree disease known as Seiridium canker.

Reitter said they're seeing more trees under stress as a result of insufficient rain amounts. When trees are in that condition, "the signal goes out to pests," and those pests attack the weaker plants.

The main threat to homeowners is falling branches or entire trees. Because it's autumn, it's hard to spot discolored foliage as a sign of sickness, but homeowners can still look for these "symptoms":

  • Deep splits through the bark
  • Heavy canopies — excessive foliage and thick branches catch more wind during stormy weather
  • Root problems — check if the soil near the base of the tree is lifting on one side, possibly as a result of a local construction project
  • Excessive leaning of the tree

Not all zombie trees need to be removed; some may have the ability to be saved.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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