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Listen to trees, learn ‘tree talk’
Ashley Hoppers ext agent
Ashley Hoppers is an Extension agent in Liberty County. - photo by File photo

Even if trees could hear and understand us, what would we say? “If you bloom for me this spring, then I will water you this summer, I promise!” “Come on, tree, when you sway in the wind like that around my house I get nervous.”  

While literally talking to our trees will not do much for us, it is a great idea to listen to them. Besides, your large woody friend may be telling you something you need to hear.

Now, how do you listen to trees anyways?  Trees are big but they are not loud.  They generally whisper.  They only shout when the situation is very serious and by then it is often too late…

To learn “tree talk” you need to go outside and stand under the limbs of your favorite tree.  Look up at the tree and listen. No, don’t put your ear to the trunk! They are not verbal.  Trees use body language. Learning to talk tree means looking your trees over to hear them communicate their needs. 

Are the small limbs leafy throughout most of their length? Are there plenty of full-sized leaves? If not, or if there are a lot of small dead branches, then the tree may be trying to say, “I’m hurt!” Some trees will even develop more small branches further down the trunk to replace ones at the top.  Injured trees may allow lots of light through the branches.

When we see a tree’s canopy thinning, the tree is often saying that there is a root problem. Drought, digging or driving around the tree, piling soil up next to it, and other factors can kill roots. Once the roots are damaged, the top responds and begins to decline. Listen to your tree.  The roots are the most important part. Keep them healthy and the tree will usually flourish.

But, don’t believe everything you hear! Some tree owners get excited when they see lichens growing on weak trees. They say, “These things are killing my trees!” Lichens are grey-green, and often flat or ruffled, and stuck on the limbs. They can be peeled off. Ball mosses are similar but grey-green and moss-like.

Any good tree can tell you, lichens do not damage plants. They just know good real estate when they see it, thus they grow on plants weakened by other factors. Investigate and correct the real problems that are causing your tree to decline and the tree may recover.

Another way trees warn us they are in trouble is by losing bark. This is a serious problem!  Just ask any tree.  

A tree’s vascular system (like our arteries and veins) is just right under the bark. Once the bark dies and falls off this system is destroyed or disturbed in this area. The way I understand this is that if a tree loses bark from 50 percent of its diameter, it is like a person with a 50 percent heart blockage.

We cannot do much if your tree is in serious decline. It may take years to recover, if ever.  We often do not hear what they are saying until they finally shout at us, lose limbs, leaves, etc. By then it is too late.

 Check on your friend before it is too late. Improve tree health by watering during drought with one inch of water once a week (not every day!). Do not drive over or dig around their roots.  Consider killing the grass over their roots and replace with a three-inch mulch. Do not run into them with weed eaters or mowers.

For more information on conversing with trees and other plants, contact the Liberty County Extension office at 912-876-2133 or e-mail us at

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