Tree rot or decay is generally caused by fungal growth that leads to microorganisms eating away at the tree. Tree bark, also known as sapwood, is resistant to fungal growth and has a defense against it. However, this defense is only active when the tree is alive on the inside. Once the fungus infects the inside of the tree, it will work outwords. Eventually the bark will no longer be able to fight against the decay and wll succumb to the rot along with the rest of the tree.
Different trees, different fungi.
The fungi mentioned by phillius enter trees through wounds, branch stubs, or any place where you might find exposed wood. A healthy tree would normally be able to fight off most fungal invasions, if the wounds are small; but an already unhealthy tree will be much less resilient.
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