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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. Duston on

    These are both very good tests to check if your plant is dead…we get a lot of the same questions and concerns that you mentioned here about whether or not our customer’s plants are alive.

  2. ann on

    Would you answer my question? I just planted two Nandina Domesticas (about 4 feet tall) two weeks ago. I watered every day for the first week. Then we got a lot of heavy rain for about four days, so I have not watered for three days. One Nandina is losing leaves–about 25 – 40 leaves so far. Should I water or what? Everything else is still pretty wet as the temps are around 70 degrees or lower. Please help. Thanks

  3. Garden Mentors on

    Ann – There are any number of things that could be causing leaf drop on your Nandina. Without being on site to truly assess the situation, we can’t advise whether you need to water more or hold off on watering. If the soil is wet in the root zone of plants, you may not need to add additional water. In fact, overwatering can also cause problems for plants. But, your plant’s rapid decline may have to do with how it was planted, if there is something else wrong with it, soil issues, or any number of other issues that have nothing to do with the water situation. If you’re stumped, get a consultant on site to help you really figure out what’s going on in your space. Good luck!

  4. Thomas on

    I cut my perimeter shrubs back too much. It’s November now, and they are still brown. Some of the bushes show no green at all. Have I killed them or is it a possibility thet they will come back during a harsh Ohio Winter? The plants are about eighteen years old. Should I just rip them out and replant or wait until next year?

  5. Garden Mentors on

    Thomas, it’s hard to know without seeing the shrubs in person. Given you’re heading into winter, it might be worth waiting to see what happens in spring. Now’s probably not the best time to plant new shrubs. Try the finger-scratch test in early spring if you’re getting anxious. Good luck!

  6. Garden Mentors on

    Lee, did you try scratching the bark as the article suggests? That may tell you if the shrub survived or not. If it did live, new growth should emerge as spring continues to ramp up.

  7. Ann Shaffer on

    Bought and planted gorgeous Nandina Domestica bushes, about five feet high ($100 each) last April. Now they look like Charlie Brown’s Xmas tree. They are solid in the grown and a scrape on the barks says they are still alive. i did not pay $100 for a 5′ tree only to cut it to the ground! is this all I can do? If not, they are still under warranty and I will get my money back and plant shorter plants and cover in winter. Is cutting to the ground all I can do? thanks.

  8. Garden Mentors on

    Ann – Sorry to hear your plants took a big hit over the winter, but this does happen with Nandina in many winter locations, so it isn’t a big surprise to hear. A full renovation may be necessary, or give the plants a chance to recover and see if they sprout from above. It’s spring now, so if they’re going to show signs of putting on new growth from nodes on the stem, it should be happening now(ish). (I say “-ish” because location makes all the difference, and I don’t know where you are. And, performance may vary by variety, and there are many cultivars of Nandina out there.) If they do sprout from an upper branch node, they may not stay bushy below. Good luck!

  9. Becky Francois on

    Thanks for the Nandina info. I was thinking about what to do with mine and you pretty much covered what I thought was best! Just want to say to others who may not want to cut to the ground….they grow back quickly- no worries! You can let then grow in to shaggy bushes or keep the canes clean and have them bush out at the top too. Very cheerful!

  10. Anna on

    Hello, I too have a sad looking Nandina! I got it in the reduced section of a garden centre last year as it looked a little sad.. I planted it in a huge terracotta pot and it’s been lovely up until a few months ago.. It’s now completely brown and I’m convinced that it’s dead!

    Should I try pruning it at all? Taking off the dead leaves and berries or just leave it be?

    I’ve scratched the bark and it’s yellow inside?

    Any advice would be gratefully received as I’d love to save my little bargain plant. ????

  11. Garden Mentors on

    Anna, Thanks for writing in. It may bounce back from the roots or stems if there’s still life in them. If it doesn’t show signs of life soon this spring, it’s probably done for.

  12. Marie Stepanek on

    It is late Sept. and one side of my nandina has turned brown. The leaves are soft. It has been doing well.

  13. Garden Mentors on

    Marie, sorry to hear part of your Nandina is browning out. It could be due to any number of reasons. Check the length of the stem that’s browning; it may be that there’s a break or other mechanical damage that caused the problem. Did you (or anyone else) spray (including pets spraying their urine) on the side of the plant. That could cause it. Or, it could be that the plant is simply on the way out. Be sure it is well watered until regular rains resume (assuming you’re in the west where it’s dry, dry, dry!) Hope this helps. Thanks for writing in!

  14. Vicky on


    My nandina are two years old. We have had cold weather for about a month and the leaves turned completely brown. No green and no beautiful red berries either. Are they done for?

  15. Garden Mentors on


    Sorry to hear it. Did you try the trick we described in the article where you scratch the bark to see if it has “wick”? Try that. Too, you might wait to see if anything comes up from the roots in fall. Berries following flowering, so lack of fruits isn’t necessarily due to your cold weather. Good luck!

  16. Marie Nesius on

    Appreciate all your advice re nandinas. Many of mine have brown leaves or fallen leaves. Some stems look as tho they have been chewed. Are they susceptible to deer damage?

  17. Garden Mentors on

    Marie, thanks for your appreciation. Nandina doesn’t tend to be a deer favorite, but deer may try nibbling on just about anything to give it a try. This time of year Nandina can look pretty darn ratty in many areas. Usually, if they’re still alive, they’ll bounce back with the spring surge. Cutting out the dead leaves and stems may help with the aesthetic too. Good luck!

  18. Marie herman on

    Many of my nandina have leaves that are curled. Just tops. They look weak, wilted. How can I remedy this. Thayer are not new plants. Deer eat them in winter

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