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5 ways to spot sick and dangerous trees before they damage your home

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Trees give much-needed shade during the summer, which is particularly welcome in times of record-high heat. But mature trees also can harbor dead branches, faulty roots and rotting bark, creating a perfect recipe for dangerous and costly property damage, especially during stormy weather.

Trees that have been upended, whether because of severe weather or disease, have crushed homes and caused injuries or even death. But living trees are an important part of the communities that surround them. Researchers have found that trees bring various benefits: In addition to providing shade, they also shelter wildlife and help combat climate change by expelling oxygen and taking in carbon dioxide.

“The best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago, and the next best time is last week,” said Cindy Musick, a certified arborist in Northern Virginia who owns the arboriculture and forestry consulting business EcoAcumen.

When trees are regularly monitored and maintained by professionals, they are less likely to pose a threat. Certified arborists, including Musick, Myra Brosius, and Lou Meyer of the Davey Tree Expert Company, stress the importance of having the right tree in the right place, and of knowing when something might be amiss.

It's storm season. Here's what to know about hiring a tree care and removal service.

Here are some simple signs of tree damage to help you determine whether you need to enlist a professional.

Inspect your trees’ canopies. It’s good practice to regularly prune trees and remove dead wood that could be dangerous in the future, says Meyer, who is based in Maryland. One of the best ways to examine a tree for dying twigs is by getting up close to its leaves and branches. It’s much easier to spot dead, leafless limbs that need to be removed in summertime, when the greens are lush. In winter, you can distinguish dead material in trees by the lack of bud growth.

Watch out for fungi. Although tree fungi aren’t as conspicuous as Mario Bros. mushrooms, Meyer says, there are some outward signs that can help you find weak spots inside trees. Conks, which are saprophytic (meaning they feed on dead matter), are round, flat-top shelf mushrooms that come in various colors and can be seen growing on the trunks and sides of trees. Cracked tree bark, hollow places in the trunk and broken branches are other clues to dead or dying tree matter as a result of fungal growth.

Make note of pests. Healthy trees have their own version of a natural immune system to repel harmful bugs, says Brosius, who is based in Baltimore. But when sap oozes out of the side, or when there are distinct holes indicating that pests have bored into the tree, Meyer says, it could be a sign that the tree is succumbing to insects. For example, the invasive emerald ash borer has killed millions of ash trees across the country, because the trees don’t have the systems to defend themselves against the nonnative beetles.

Be cautious of leaning trees. A more obvious cause for suspicion is if a tree is leaning or lopsided, which could be a sign of root damage. But don’t be too quick to declare an unbalanced tree doomed, because not all crooked trees are dying. The leaning effect could be a result of phototropism, where plants naturally position themselves toward sunlight. If the tree has grown at a slant all its life, it’s probably because of phototropism, Brosius says. But if the trunk is straight and the tree only recently began to curve, it might be cause for concern. If you can’t tell the difference, call a professional.

Ask for an arborist’s assessment. If you’re not sure about your trees’ health, get a second look from a certified arborist, which is essentially a tree doctor trained to identify, diagnose and treat issues. These people take a holistic approach when inspecting a property’s greenery, ensuring that trees are in the right soil, water and environment to thrive.

Musick recommends getting a general assessment every two to three years while trees are maturing to catch and correct structural issues early. (If you’re in D.C., Maryland, Virginia or West Virginia, go to goodtreecare.com to find a list of arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.) And whether you decide to contact your local tree-service company or find an independent arborist, Musick says it’s important to make sure they are licensed and insured, as well as certified through the ISA. It’s money well spent, arborists say. Basic tree inspections cost a couple hundred dollars every few years, but tree damage and removal can be tens of thousands of dollars.

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