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My Shrub’s Dead, Right?

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Wondering how to tell if your plant is dead?

There’s nothing like a defoliated evergreen in winter to have us asking how to tell if your plant is dead. Too, sometimes it’s tough to tell if a deciduous plant is dead or just playing possum. But knowing if a plant is really dead after a freeze may not be impossible.
Is my shrub dead or alive
And, often we choose evergreens because they add winter interest to our gardens. So, when these plants decide appear to die in winter, our gardens become particularly unappealing.

Nandina is one that may look dead after a freeze.

But, your heavenly bamboo probably isn’t actually dead.  Fortunately, there are some easy test to help you know how to tell if your plant is dead. And, these tests can work for both evergreen and deciduous plants alike. So, that means Nandina and many other kinds of plants as well.

So, how to test a plant to see if it is alive or dead?

For woody outdoor plants, simply scratching the bark may tell you if your plant is dead or alive. In the event that your plant looks dead, but you aren’t sure. Give it a little scratch test.

  • Nicking a branch just a little bit with your fingernail.
  • If your fingernail isn’t strong enough, use a pruning tool to make your little cut.
  • And don’t make a huge gouge or big tear.

Nick to tell if your plant is dead or alive

What you should see if your plant isn’t dead.

  • If the branch is alive, you should see bright green, yellow or sometimes white.
  • Nandina is one that shows yellow when it is alive.
  • Living branches may ooze a little water when you nick them.
  • If the branch is dead, it will look brown.

If one branch is dead, the shrub may still be alive.

When you make your first nick, make the cut close to the tip of the branch in question.
Dead plant branches are brown & brittle

  • If the first nick is brown and dead, don’t give up.
  • Make another nick further down the branch.
  • In fact, you can repeat nicks all the way down a branch.
  • Only part of the plant may be dead!
  • If that’s the case, you may be able to salvage the plant.

What will a living shrub branch feel like?

  • Living branches should be supple.
  • However, living branches can be firm.
  • In contrast, dead branches will be brittle.
  • As well, dead branches on Nandina tend to be shriveled too.
  • And just because some of the leaves are brown, doesn’t mean your evergreen plant is a goner.
  • Too, the dead shrubs may be very hard to nick or cut.

Making little nicks is a very helpful way how to tell if your plant is dead or alive. Really, it’s that easy! And, again, remember to only make small nicks. That’s because most plants can recover from small bark cuts. However, if you damage a lot of bark, odds are your plant will give up the ghost. And, this holds true with both evergreen and deciduous plants.

Dead top growth doesn’t always mean an entirely dead plant!

Even if the top growth doesn’t pass the test, this isn’t the only way to tell if your plant is dead. That’s because some plants will sprout anew from the roots. And Nandina is really good at doing this. In fact, most common plants in the barberry family can survive at the root level to sprout anew come spring.

This means all is not always lost if your plant doesn’t pass the branch nicking test. If you’re really impatient, you can dig up your plant and check the roots to see if they’re still healthy. But if you dig up the plant, you may stunt the new growth.

So, in conclusion, sometimes being patient and waiting for new life to emerge in spring will be the best way to know if your plant is dead or alive.

Now that your plant’s alive, what’s next?

Now you know how to tell if your plant is dead or alive! And hopefully, you’ve determined your plant is alive.

But, if much of it looks dead, you now probably need to figure out how to prune out the dead parts of your living shrub. Or you might need to learn more about healthy roots so you can determine if your underground plant is still alive despite top growth dieback.

So, how can you learn how to prune and get more help with your gardening questions?

Well, sign up now & we’ll let you know the minute we re-open enrollment for our online gardening classes and group garden coaching society memberships. That way you’ll be first in line to get our BEST HELP so you can stop struggling to garden and grow a better gardening lifestyle and garden!

40 comments on “My Shrub’s Dead, Right?

  1. Garden Mentors on


    Site unseen, it’s tough to diagnose what’s happening. Some Nandina naturally have slightly curled, puckered leaves. But, not all of them. And weak, wilted leaves could be indicative of a root issue. But, whether that means it’s too wet, too dry, or something else problematic is tough to know. You might dig around at the base to see if the roots have an issue &/or bring in a local consultant to help you on site. Good luck!

  2. Frances on

    My very established nandina looked pretty good until a few weeks ago. All of the sudden, they’ve lost almost all foliage, though there is some new growth so they’re not dead. They hadn’t been pruned in ages (I just bought this house 6 months ago), so I aggressively pruned the nandina. Now I’ve got a collection of sticks sticking out of the ground! Yikes. Please tell me they’ll return to their former glory! How long before I see growth? I live near DC area, so spring has sprung here.

  3. Garden Mentors on

    Frances, Nandina is what’s known as a “cane grower”. These are plants that should send up new shoots from the roots in response to pruning out older canes, so be on the look out for that happening as the spring season continues. Also, depending on where you cut the older stems, you may see new growth emerge from those as well. Good luck!


    Help! I bought 4 firepower nandinas a few weeks back. All were doing well. Last week I came home from a walk and found that one of my dogs had pulled up one of the plants and shaken off the soil from the roots. The incident had happened no longer than an hour before I returned home. Immediately I replanted and watered it and have watered it every day since. I live in VA and only this week have we begun to hit 80’s. The one poor nandina is looking worse and worse the leaves are all yellowing and the plant no longer looks perky and growing like the other three. Is there anything I can do?

  5. Garden Mentors on

    Abigail. If the leaves are yellowing and drying up, the plant may be kaput. But, Nandina can be resilient and bounce back up from the roots or send a new shoot up from a bud point down stem from the dieback. Site unseen it’s difficult to know. Keep caring for it, and maybe it’ll bounce back. If it doesn’t soon, you might replace it (with something other than Nandina, which we’re learning can be toxic to songbirds!)

  6. Abigail on

    Thanks so much! I am just finding your answer now. I kept the nandina in the same pot, moved it away from direct sun and loaded it up with water, It took a while, but it finally responded and now is flourishing. My previous experience with nandina has been one of awe at how resilient they are. Maybe I just got a temperamental one! Thanks so much for your feedback. I did what you suggested and it came back.

  7. Garden Mentors on

    Betty, Site unseen it’s difficult to know for certain what’s happening in your specific situation. That being said, even if the top growth dies back, sometimes Nandina shrubs will sprout anew from the roots or stems later. Have you tried the testing techniques covered in this article? If not, give it a shot & let us know how it goes. Good luck!

  8. Lucy C. on

    We live in zone 6, and our nandina had beautiful red leaves until about 3 weeks ago. This happened to one plant last year, and I cut it back early spring last year and it EVENTUALLY grew new foliage. But it never rebounded to be the same size. Well now this winter, the other 4 have turned completely brown, one has a tiny bit of new growth on the bottom. I know they’re alive, but I’m wondering how to cut them back? I read to cut 1/3 of the canes back to the ground, but do I just leave all the brown leaves?

  9. Garden Mentors on


    You might start by checking to see if there’s life in the stems as this article describes. If the stem is totally dead, we’d choose to remove it. If not, you might cut some live stems part way back and remove any dead material from those stems. Plus, cutting back several nandina stems to the ground should encourage the plant to send up new stems from the roots. It can take a nandina plant several seasons to regrow to previous height and lushness. So patience may be required. And if this is an on-going issue, it might be worth evaluating whether the nandina is the right plant for that place. Could be something else is going on. Good luck!

  10. Dar on

    I have bayberry shrubs that I want to look like a hedge. The have shoots that spread but never bulk up and get taller. I have poison ivy growing among it so afraid to prune can you help me and tell me how to care for them? The sticks, branches are 8 feet tall and bare of leaves. Help me please.

  11. Garden Mentors on

    Dar, given the complexity of your challenges, hiring a garden coach or other certified garden or arborist consultant might be your best bet here. It could be that the poison ivy is out-competing the bayberry shrubs. Or it could be that the environment isn’t conducive to their success. And that a could be due to sun/shade, soil or other challenges. Too, it might be that the plants themselves are struggling due to other issues such as pests, disease or even challenges that come in at planting time. So, it might be time to hire someone knowledgable to help you with your specific garden challenges. Of course, if nothing else, we’d steer clear of mucking around in a poison ivy patch! Good luck.

  12. Bette on

    I think I messed up. In late fall I cut my nandina back so there was no foliage left, with nothing but wood sticking up about 12″ from the ground. These bushes are pretty old, at least 15 years. It’s now spring, and I’m not seeing a comeback except. I’m worried I killed them. Any way to bring them back? Fertilizer? I thought I would try a renewal since I’ve only just trimmed before…they were getting too big and bushy. HELP!

  13. Garden Mentors on

    Bette, Thanks for writing in. You might give your Nandina more time to come up from the roots before you give up. Sometimes when you cut it hard, it takes it a while to bounce back from the roots. You can nick the wood to see if any of the “sticks” have life. If not, cut those down as well. These plants may be slow, but they can often come back from the roots later. Finally, putting down fertilizer won’t help if there’s no life in the plant. Plus, putting down fertilizer on a dead plant may mean the fertilizer simply passes through the soil and adds to contamination issues. So we’d hold off on fertilizing. In fact, probably best to test your soil before fertilizing. Might be there’s plenty of nutrients in the soil already. Finally, if you aren’t patient, you could dig up your possibly dead Nandina and plant something new. Good luck!

  14. denise on

    Can you tell me why my dwarf firepower nandina would turn red after i planted it in the spring. I planted 10 and all but one has red leaves now. I cannot find any info on this anywhere

  15. Garden Mentors on

    Denise, Thanks for writing in. Firepower nandina is known for having particular brilliant red foliage. So that’s likely why it would be red in spring. The one that isn’t red could be not getting red for many reasons. It might be that the plant is in more shade than others. When plants that have colorful foliage are grown in spots that don’t provide as much sunlight as they require to feed themselves easily, they may revert to producing more green pigments. This can enable them to do more photosynthesizing. Another issue might be that the plant isn’t actually a ‘Firepower’ cultivar. It could be that the label was wrong. Or it might be that the grower mixed things up. Or, it could be that the plant itself just isn’t a strong version of that cultivar. All of these reasons (and others) might be the reason you’re seeing mixed color results on your plants. Good luck!

  16. Robert / Cynthia Parks on

    Very, very helpful. I was told our nandina was dead…now I know how to test and even cut back if necessary. Good information and straight to the point! Thank you!!

  17. Bonnie Raber Wickes on

    We’ve enjoyed Nandina bushes in our sunny Pacific Northwest yard the past ten years, grown from one foot to four or five feet with beautiful foliage. This Spring we noticed areas in each plant with loss of leaves, brittle branches that break off easily down to the bottom. It seems to be spreading. Not sure if this is the result of poor pruning in the past or some kind of plant disease?? Any advice?

  18. Garden Mentors on


    Site unseen it’s difficult to know what’s happening with your plants. That being said, as Nandina grows tall, older stems often become woody & begin to naturally lose their lower foliage. And it can continue up the plant so it begins to look like woody sticks with foliage on the top. This might be what’s happening. If it is, there are ways to rejuvenate the plant to help it fill in at the base again.

    If you’d like more help with your garden’s Nandina issues, get in touch with us here to schedule a consultation (in person or virtual offerings available)!

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