Redbay, sassafras trees might face extinction

Published 3:28 pm Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A state forestry expert said on Monday that the redbay and sassafras trees, native to Mississippi for thousands of years, might face extinction if an antidote to laurel wil, a devastating disease spread to these two species by a small beetle is not found soon.

“We are very alarmed. There is a possibility of the extinction of these species,” said Randy Chapin, district forester and state forestry health coordinator, based in the Southwest State Forestry office in Brookhaven.

Chapin said what has forestry experts stumped is how the beetle infestation got from Georgia to Jackson County almost overnight. “We knew about the Georgia infestation and normally it would take something like that 20 years to reach Mississippi, but all of a sudden it appears in Jackson County, and we don’t know how it got there,” Chapin said.

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“This beetle has the potential to wipe out these two species, completely,” he added. He said that it only takes one beetle to bore into one tree to cause the tree to die.

“One beetle; one dead tree,” said Chapin.

The beetle is about half the size of a grain of rice. Chapin said the beetle attacked a “large stand of ancient redbay trees” growing on islands off the Savannah, Ga., coastline and “devastated them.”

Although state forestry officials don’t like to mention it, but they are wondering if the redbay and sassafras trees might be headed down the same path as the American chestnut, which was wiped out over a 50-year period from about 1900 to 1950, also by an infestation of an Asian disease.

Said Chapin, “Yes sir, it has the same potential. It is that alarming.”

The disappearance of the American chestnut trees has been called the greatest ecological disaster to ever hit the United States.

In addition, Chapin said that the sprouts from the destroyed tree’s stump are infected with the disease, too.

Redbay tree leaves are also used in seasoning cajun dishes. The wood is also used in cabinet-making and woodturning because of its beautiful grain.

The sassafras was once used as a base for rootbeer and the roots are still used to make sassafras tea in the Spring, an old, historic drink that once was a staple, even as a medicinal drink. Crumbled sassarfas leaves are the filet of filet gumbo.

Sassafras tea was once touted as a health drink to clean the blood, but scientists later said it had no medicinal qualities. The near microscopic insect carries a pathogen for what is called the deadly laurel wilt disease that kills the host plant in a matter of weeks.

Chapin said the worse thing is that scientists right now have no antidote to the beetle or the disease it spreads among the trees.

“That’s the problem. We have no way of combating this. We are very much alarmed. Anyone in the public who sees signs of this disease should let us know,” said Chapin.

His phone number is 601-833-6621 and his email address is

Chapin said the National Forest Service is so concerned about it that it has funded a $25,000 grant to Mississippi State scientist Dr. John Riggins to lead a study on what damage the beetle is doing to Mississippi trees and what can be done to combat the outbreak.

“We are just puzzled over how it got here so fast,” said Chapin, “and only a precise study will reveal that.”

He said the beetle is from Asia and probably came in by port, probably at Savannah, Ga.

He said it is possible it came to Mississippi in a load of firewood.

“We have a lot of questions that need answers,” he said.

The beetle was first spotted in Georgia in 2002 and then spread along the Coast to Florida and South Carolina. How it made the big jump to Jackson County, scientists have no idea.

Researchers have discovered dead and dying trees in the Pascagoula River Basin and in the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge between Interstate10 and U.S. Highway 90 in Jackson County.

Symptoms of the infestation include drooping foliage with a reddish or purplish discoloration. Removing the bark reveals a black discoloration in the outer sapwood and evidence of boring by the beetle can be seen in tree stems.