Red Bay Branch

Written by Clevel Powell
Originally published in the January 2007 edition of the OAI Newsletter

There was a recent article in the Times Union by Larry Figart, an urban forester, entitled “The destructive red bay ambrosia beetle,” which caught my attention having grown up on what is now Tree Hill. Red Bay Branch is the life blood of Tree Hill, my playground growing up. It also was part of the Richard mill pond for 50 or so years. The article started out by saying “Take a drive through certain neighborhoods along the river in Arlington or in Kingsley Plantation, and you will notice dead and dying trees everywhere.” I must admit I haven’t spotted any yet, but I take the man’s word for it. I also learned quite a bit about the red bay from the article as follows.

It is a native tree that grows throughout the Southeast and is common along the coast on barrier islands (Kingsley Plantation). It is best known for its evergreen leaves that produce a pleasant spicy odor when crushed. Some folks even use red bay leaves as a seasoning in cooking (my mother used bay leaves in spaghetti sauce). Red Bay is planted in butterfly gardens because its leaves are eaten by the spicebush butterfly larvae. The berries are eaten by many wildlife species. This means that it is an important plant in the increasingly fragile condition of our Arlington hammock lands.

The article went on to say that in the summer of 2005, Red Bay trees started dying on Kingsley Plantation. An inspection of the dead trees reveled numerous tiny holes up and down the tree trunks. Some of these holes had a “sawdust string” coming out of the hole. Entomologist were called in to help figure out what was killing the trees.

What they found is not very good news. The trees are being attacked by the Red Bay Ambrosia Beetle native to India and southeast Asia. It was probably introduced into the United States in solid wood crates and pallets used to ship goods from Asia (buy American). The beetle doesn’t eat the tree but tunnels in to lay eggs. The adults carry with them a fungus that grows on the tunnel walls. It is not the insect but the fungus that kills the trees.

The good news is that they have a restrictive appetite and are not believed to spread to other trees besides the red bay and sassafras. If you see similar signs on dying pines and hardwoods it probably is the native ambrosia beetle. There is no control known for this beetle at this time. It is recommended that affected material not be transported and it can be used for firewood but for personal use only.

On the cover of the 1827 papers for confirmation of Francis Richard’s 250 acre mill grant by Congress are the words “Red Bay Hammock near Cowford on SaintXJohns.” In the partition dated 5 Nov. 1817, it described it as “Land near SaintXNicholas at a place called Red Laurel Grove,” which interestingly was attested to by F. J. Fatio (New Castle Plantation). It is also described as being a half mile from the mouth of “Boggy Branch,” which was one name for Strawberry Creek.

At any rate the creek or branch that runs through Tree Hill got the name of Red Bay Branch and the springs at the head of the creek where the scouts camped for years were known as the “Red Bay Campground.” When the Johnsons settled on the creek in 1914 they called their farm “Red Bay Ranch” and later their dairy “Red Bay Dairy.” Probably many of the original red bays were sawed into lumber by Richard, as says the wood was used sparingly for interior finishing as well as in boat construction. If you are fortunate enough to have a healthy stand of red bay on your land please save them.