Redbay

Persea borbonia
Family: Lauraceae

Natural Historyredbay leaves
Leaves and fruit of redbay
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Redbay is related to the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), the tree that provides bay leaf spice. The leaves of the redbay can also be used in cooking. It is important to note, however, that similar-looking leaves of some species such as the English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) may be poisonous. To stay safe, get your bay leaves from the grocery store instead of the forest!

Unfortunately, widespread mortality of the redbay is being experienced in the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida due to a disease called laurel wilt. The disease is caused by a fungus (Raffaelea sp.) that is carried by a non-native insect, the redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus). The fungus inhibits the flow of water in infected trees, causing the leaves to wilt and eventually leading to the death of the plant. Laurel wilt also affects avocado (Persea americana) and other members of the Lauraceae family. The disease is therefore of utmost concern to many stakeholders. The presence of the redbay ambrosia beetle was first detected in the United States in 2002. It was discovered in Florida in 2005.

Habitat & Range

Redbay prefers rich, moist soils along streams and swamp borders in association with both conifers and hardwoods such as sweetbay, swamp tupelo, pond pine, bald cypress, red maple, sweetgum, and loblollybay. However, it occasionally appears on dry, sandy soils in association with longleaf pine. It is found on the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains from Delaware to eastern Texas, north through Louisiana to southern Arkansas, and also in southern Florida.

Wildlife Use

Many songbirds, wild turkey, bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer, and black bear take advantage of the food the leaves and fruit of redbay provide. Bobwhite quail in particular eat a lot of redbay seeds in the fall and winter. Redbay also provides food for the Palamedes swallowtail and Spicebrush swallowtail butterflies.

Human Use

This tree is known to many because of its aromatic leaves that are used to season sauces and soups.  The reddish wood is used in cabinetry, interior finishing, and boat construction. The redbay also serves as an attractive ornamental.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Redbay is a attractive, medium-sized evergreen tree that can grow up to 70 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. In the forest it develops a clear, cylindrical bole and a dense, pyramidal crown with ascending branches. The fleshy, yellowish roots are deep and widespread.
Leaves: Redbay leaves are simple, alternately arranged, and persistent. They are lance-shaped, 3 to 7 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. The leathery leaves are dark green above and pale green with a waxy layer below. There is rusty pubescence on the midrib. The margins are entire and the leaves emit an aromatic smell when crushed. Leaf apices are acute, while leaf bases are broadly wedge-shaped or rounded. Leaf petioles are stout, rigid, red-brown, and about ½ inch long.
Twigs: The twigs of the current season are 3-angled and are somewhat fluted, light brown, and glabrous except for a coating of pale or rusty-red pubescence when they first appear. The pith is whitish, rounded, and homogeneous.
Bark: The bark is reddish-brown and divided by deep, irregular fissures into broad, flat, superficially scaly ridges. If you scrape off some of the bark surface of this tree, you will find a reddish-brown layer underneath. This is a distinguishing characteristic.
Flowers: The flowers of this tree are perfect, light yellow-green and appear in small clusters in leaf axils.
Fruit: The fruit is a small, round, bright blue or lustrous blue-black drupe 1/3 to ½ inch long. The fruit matures in early fall.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • Southern magnolia also has alternate, simple leaves with smooth margins, but those leaves are larger and stiffer.

 

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