By Sarah Ernst
In 2001, a few tiny beetles about the size of Lincoln’s nose on a penny arrived in a shipping crate in Savannah, Georgia, and these little tagalongs carried with them their own deadly hitchhiker: a fungal disease called Laurel Wilt. In 2007, the beetles and disease arrived on Kiawah Island and began infecting our native Redbay trees. The Redbay is a common understory tree of the southern coastal ecosystem and provides a rich crop of berries every fall for wildlife –particularly for migrating songbirds – but it is best known as the only host plant for the caterpillar of the Palamedes Swallowtail butterfly, the large black and yellow butterflies that flutter around island flowers from spring to fall.
Laurel Wilt is fatal and there is currently no way to prevent its spread or to heal infected trees. Today, dead Redbay trees can be found from the far west end to the far east end of the island, from the dunes to the marsh edges and from the middle of a golf course to the vegetated roadsides. In the next few years, we can expect to join our southern neighbors of Hilton Head and Fripp Island in the near complete, or possibly complete, loss of our Redbays.
Before this happens, the Kiawah Island Nature Program is working with the USDA Forest Service’s National Seed Laboratory to begin a seed collection program to preserve the genetic diversity of the Kiawah Redbays that have survived thus far. While seed collection doesn’t put an end to the lethal spread of laurel wilt, we hope that seed collection will provide more options to scientists attempting to restore the Redbay in the future.
The Kiawah Nature Program recently hosted a volunteer day to sample different locations across the island. Participants brought their binoculars along as they followed Naturalists who pointed out birds and other wildlife while collecting the seeds of our existing Redbays. If you’ve missed this event, it’s not too late to help by collecting seeds in your own time. Seeds from Johns Island, Seabrook, and Kiawah are all welcome, particularly from healthy trees adjacent to dead trees, in the hopes that the tree may have some resistance against laurel wilt. Contact the Heron Park Nature Center for more information at 768-6001.
Sarah Ernst is a naturalist with the Heron Park Nature Center on Kiawah Island.