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.