Elegy for the Red Bay

Dutch elm disease.  Chestnut blight.  Hemlock woolly adelgid.  Emerald ash borer.  It’s the same old story over and over again, and we all know how it goes.

Red bay, Persea borbonia, is a common tree here on the island.  It’s in the laurel family, and yes, it’s related to the bay from which we get bay leaves for cooking; its leaves have a wonderful aroma when crushed.

Most of our red bays, though, are currently sporting as many branches of brown leaves as of green.  Is it because it’s winter?

Peer up into the canopy.  Brown, brown everywhere you look.  Why?

The redbay ambrosia beetle, Xyleborus glabratus, is native to Asia.  In 2002 it was discovered in Savannah, Georgia, and it has been spreading south since.  The beetle brought with it a fungus with which it lives in symbiosis.  The beetle tunnels into a tree in the laurel family, and inside the tunnel it cultivates the fungus, which is its only source of nutrition.  The fungus consumes the tree’s xylem, and the beetle, in turn, consumes the fungus.

And our red bay trees die before our eyes.  The disease is moving south toward Florida, where it will cut the crop of another member of the laurel family, the avocado, in half.

The American elm.  The American chestnut.  The eastern hemlock.  A long list of ash species.  And now, the red bay.

6 replies on “Elegy for the Red Bay”

Let’s see… there are still small- to medium-sized elms in some places where they were isolated from other members of their species and escaped infection, and there are elm trees that have simply started reproducing at an earlier age in response to the selective pressure that results from the disease killing them when they reach full size, and a VERY few that seem to be resistant to the disease. Chestnuts were almost completely wiped out, but again, there are still a small number of trees in isolated spots, and there are small sprouts of older trees that eventually get infected and die, and there is an organization working to create blight-resistant chestnuts that can be reintroduced. With the hemlocks and ashes, the invasive pests are still spreading and we don’t know yet what their full effect will be, but things don’t look good.

Hi Rebecca – had not heard of Red Bay but tales of yet another disease/pest threat to native species is disheartening. If these beetles are Asian, the question is how does the native fauna there survive the depredations?

Look forward to you hosting the next Festival!

Hi Rebecca – what a lovely blog! I found it (you) while researching for a new post I’m writing about Endophytes and trees.

You may be interested that we do have a few mature English elms here in Britain that appear resistant to Dutch elm disease. At the same time we have a growing number of worrying tree pests and pathogens.


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