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Save the tu-lee: Redbay project begins on Tribal reservations

A federal-state program, “Mitigating the Natural and Cultural Impacts of Laurel Wilt on Redbay (Persea borbonia),” has begun on reservations of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

The project, funded under the national 2014 Farm Bill and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, seeks to defeat the destructive laurel wilt vascular disease now threatening redbay trees throughout the Southeastern Atlantic Coastal Plain. The contagious plague is caused by tiny Asian invasive ambrosia beetles that burrow into the trees and restrict water flow.

After noticing the sudden appearance of dead redbays on and around the Brighton Reservation in early summer, Chairman James E. Billie contacted redbay expert Jason Smith, associate professor of Forest Pathology at the University of Florida. Smith visited Brighton to investigate. He quickly diagnosed the same laurel wilt that brought substantial and widespread mortality to redbays in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida.

Discussions with Chairman Billie led Smith to pursue adding a special component within the project to address Native cultural uses of the redbay and the importance of saving the tree for medicine and other traditional uses in the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes.

Lanette Sobel, a UF graduate student, will be heading up the project on Indian lands.

“We are particularly interested in finding strong, live redbays that are surviving among the dead ones,” she said. “If a single tree survives in a group of dozens, then that particular tree must have developed an immunity. We want to find out everything we can about that tree.”

The process will include taking cuttings from “special” trees and propagating them in Gainesville under ideal growing conditions and the microscopes of UF researchers.

“If anyone knows of a special tree – whether it is regularly used for a cultural purpose or is important or a favorite for any reason – I hope they will let me know,” Sobel said.

Sobel will be searching Brighton, Big Cypress, Immokalee and Miccosukee Reservations.

At the Chairman’s suggestion, she spent several hours on the issue with Tribal culture experts Bobby Henry and Herbert Jim in Tampa. She will assess the redbay situation at the Tribe’s Lakeland property where reports of dead redbays have recently surfaced.

Anyone who finds healthy redbays or who has questions about the project should call Sobel at 786-253-2222.