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Redbay (Persea borbonia) is a perennial evergreen tree in the laurel family (Lauraceae).  It is native to the Southeastern United States, and grows along the Gulf coast plain patchily in Texas and Louisiana, from Mississippi across panhandle and peninsular Florida and north to North Carolina and the southeast coast of Virginia.  It also grows in the Bahamas and is cultivated in Hawaii.  Redbay usually grows on the borders of swamp land.  It is also known as tisswood, scrubbay, shorebay, and swampbay.

Persea borbonia grows as either a small tree or a large shrub.  Its lance-shaped leaves are about 3 to 6 inches long, bright to dark green in color, and arranged alternately on the stem.  When crushed, the leaves emit a spicy smell.  In April-May, small white flowers form on axils branching from new growth.  Bees and wind pollinate the flowers.  Blue or black drupe fruits ripen in August-September.  Songbirds, white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and black bear eat the fruit and disseminate the seeds.  Deer and bear also browse redbay foliage, consuming up to as much as 40% of its annual growth without jeopardizing the tree.  In some habitats redbay provides essential habitat for gray squirrels.

Redbay is not widely used in the present day for medicinal uses, however the Seminole Indians used to use it as an emetic to induce vomiting.  The dried leaves can be used as an alternative to tropical bay spice for cooking.  The wood is hard and strong, and used locally to build boats, cabinets and for lining the interior of structures.  Persea borbonia is cultivated as an ornamental tree for gardens and parks.

In 2002 an ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) was discovered as a recent introduction to the Southeastern United States from Asia.  Now called the redbay ambrosia beetle, it arrived with a fungal symbiont (Raffaelea lauricola) which the adult and larvae cultivate as their food source.  The ambrosia beetle bores into the wood of healthy trees, inoculating the xylem with the fungi.  The fungi plug the tree’s xylem and prevent transport of water, causing wilting symptoms.  At this point, the diseased tree is susceptible to other ambrosia beetles and their associated fungi.  These pathogens cause rapid discoloration of foliage and wood and the tree dies within months.  Although still a new pathogen complex, the beetle-fungi complex appears to spread rapidly, and is thought to be a very high risk pest to redbay and other laurel species with a potentially huge impact on these flora.  As yet there is no known means of preventing the spread of the redbay ambrosia beetle.

(Brendemuehl 1990; Mann et al. 2014; Van Deelen 1991; Wikipedia 2015)


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