Authorities expanding sassafras and red bay disease search area

Published 1:41 pm Friday, May 14, 2010

A state forestry official said on Thursday that a search and research area in South Mississippi, in which a Chinese beetle is attacking the red bay and sassafras trees, is being expanded.

The two species of trees have been important to Mississippi and Southern forests for thousands of years.

Randy Chapin, district forester here, said beetle traps will be set along Interstate 10  into Louisiana and Alabama and along the bottom tier of three counties that form the boot hill of South Mississippi — Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“Researchers will be doing extensive trapping all over the Gulf Coast in an effort to get a fix on this beetle and the possible damage it is doing,” he said.

The research is being carried out under entomologist Dr. John Riggins, an associate professor at Mississippi State University, who is receiving federal money for the studies. The funds are being funneled through the State Forestry Commission to Dr. Riggins’ project.

Riggins said that studies this year will attempt to see if the infestation in Jackson County is moving, either west of, or north up, the Pascagoula River. “Last year, studies seemed to indicate that it has moved up slightly north on the Pascagoula and we will be looking at that real closely this year,” he said.

Riggins said he has had one report in Hancock County of the laurel wilt disease but that has not been confirmed. He said Pearl River County was checked last year but nothing was found.

He said he has received additional funding this year and is preparing to fill two full-time staff positions to help in the project.

Officials familiar with the study and the beetle say that the infestation has the potential to devastate Mississippi and the South’s stands of red bay and sassafras trees, a standard species supporting the habitat and wildlife of Southern forests and central of the culture of the area.

Chapin said that through aerial surveys additional dead trees have been spotted along the Pascagoula River in Jackson County and researchers are still trying to pinpoint how the beetle got from the Carolina and Georgia coasts to Jackson County so quickly.

“We knew about the Georgia and Carolina 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 so fast,” he said. The beetle and its damage was first identified in Georgia and South Carolina in 2002.

Researchers think it might have arrived in Jackson County in a load of firewood but are not yet sure.

 Authorities think the beetle arrived on South Carolina and Georgia coasts, probably in wood packing material in a shipment of goods from China.

The beetle is about the size of a grain of rice, and it bores into a tree and releases a fungus for its young to feed on that clogs the trees’ circulatory system. “One beetle; one dead tree; that is the way it has been going,” said Chapin.

Forestry officials are worried the red bay 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, “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.

Red bay tree leaves are used in seasoning Cajun dishes. The wood is also used in cabinet making and wood-turning because of its beautiful grain. It is also host to three different species of nesting butterflies.

The sassafras was once used as a base for root beer 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 sassafras 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.

Once the beetle attacks the tree, it produces what is termed the “laurel wilt” disease that kills the host in a matter of weeks. The trees’ leaves turn brown and fall off and the tree dies.

Scientists have no antidote to the disease.

“That’s the problem,” says Chapin. “We have no way of combating this.”