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How To Tell If Spirea Is Dead: The Scratch Test

Last year, my sister lost many plants to bad weather, so she decided to have a clear out. She was about to dig up some of the shrubs and dispose of them, but a neighbor pointed out that some could just be hibernating, and she shouldn’t cut them off.

Needless to say, she had no idea how to tell if Spirea is dead, so she reached out to me, and I shared my experience with my own spirea plant problem from a little over five years earlier.

How To Tell If Spirea Is Dead 2
Why does my spirea look so “dead” in the middle? – via Reddit

How To Tell If Spirea Is Dead

So, six years ago, after one of the coldest winters in recent history, spring finally came along, bringing with it a bit of green in the dead grass, budding in trees, and the blooming of blubs.

As my perennials, which included my spirea plant, finally started to sprout, I got busy trying to clear off the dried seed heads and dead stems.

Before doing that, however, I  decided to take a mental attendance. Ornamental Sage? Here! Catmint? Here! Spirea? Hello? Have any of you heard from the Spirea lately?

Yes, one of my favorite plants to grow was a no-show. The plant wasn’t producing any leaves at all (even on the plant’s base), and the stems were still lifeless and bare as if the seasons hadn’t changed. So, naturally, just like my sister, I was left wondering should I dig them out? Cut them down? Or perhaps I’m just being too impatient? How can I certainly tell if my Spirea is dead?

After spending days scouring the internet and consulting with experts on what I should do about my Spirea, I finally found a foolproof solution anyone can employ to tell beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not their Spirea is dead.

See, when it comes to perennials like the spirea plant, it’s usually a matter of waiting if your plant completely disappeared after an extended winter period. If you’ve had the plant for several years, then you probably know when it would usually begin to sprout after winter has passed.

So, if several weeks pass after the period you were expecting, and the plant is still giving you no signs of life or growth, you’re warranted to dig them all out and replace them with fresh ones.

Still, though, you’ll need to have the tricky nature of these woody plants in mind. The last thing we want to do is kill a plant we’ve been taking care of for years, only to realize after the fact that the plant was just being cautious about breaking its dormancy. At the same time, if a plant is beyond hope, then as a plant parent, you need to get rid of it right away and keep moving.

With all that in mind, the first surefire test you can carry out to tell if your Spirea is dead is the scratch test.

How To Tell If Spirea Is Dead
Spirea branches dying off, no idea why? – via Reddit

The Scratch Test

If you suspect your plant is dead but do not know for sure how to tell if Spirea is dead, take the following test:

1.      Scratch The Plant

As a first step, scratch the bark on the shoots of your spirea tree using a penknife or thumbnail. Usually, you’ll either find a green and moisture under the bark, or you’ll find nothing but brownness. If you see green or moisture, the plant is alive, but it’s dead if the stem is brown under the bark.

Also, living shoots on Spirea tend to have firm but smooth barks, whereas dying or already dead shoots will usually have a withered, peeling, or flaking bark.

2.      Test Thicker Wood

After ascertaining that the shoots are dead at their tips, you’ll still need to repeat the test on the thickest parts of the wood and confirm whether or not they’re dead as well. If you notice the thickest parts of Spirea are brown as well, then chances that the plant is dead increase exponentially.

3.      Final Step

The final step after finding the thickest stems dry is to scrape the main stem’s bark at the base where it meets the soil line to ascertain. If this part appears dark and dry in color as well, you can rest assured you’ve most likely lost your spirea plant and will need to dig it out and get rid of it.

That said, if you notice any signs of life at any stage of the three-step test above, you’ll need to let the plant sit in the soil for several more months to see how it responds. If the period passes and it still hasn’t come to life, perform the test again, or feel free to assume the plant is dead.

Rare Cases

In some rear cases, the roots of a spirea plant might be alive even though the above-ground plant has completely succumbed to the cold. To confirm whether this is the case with your spirea plant, carefully dig to the plant’s roots, and perform the scratch test on the roots as well. Be careful not to damage the roots or cause the plant any shock.

If you notice the roots are still alive, you’re advised to prune the plant all the way down to the ground and let it sprout a new.

Replacing The Spirea

So, picking a replacement plant to take the spot you had planted your previous Spirea will be totally up to you and your budget. If Spirea is your favorite and you’re in a position to invest in a new one, go ahead and splurge. That said, if all you want is “anything green” next to your home, I’d suggest swapping out the spirea plant with something harder.


Final Thoughts

When it comes to telling if Spirea is dead, it’s almost impossible to tell just from taking one look at the shrub since their woody parts do not give anything away.

With that in mind, before you start digging away, use a coin or your thumbnail to scrape back small pieces of the bark and see whether or not what is underneath is alive.

If you notice any moisture or green underneath, the spirea plant is still alive. If you notice it’s brown and dry, chances are the plant is dead, and you’ll need to dig it up and get rid of it.