Now that the fantastic insanity of the holidays has passed, my son has recorded three weeks outside the womb, and I finally have a phone again, I’m happy to resume my regularly scheduled Wednesday programming. In this week’s edition of Woody Wednesday, we’ll take an in-depth look at yet another southern forest resident that has been decimated by a foreign invader. Not as romantic as the stately chestnut (already gone), the ubiquitous and eminently useful ash (on the way out), the picturesque hemlock (give it a decade, at least in the South), it may be one you’ve never heard of: the redbay (Persea borbonia).
Redbay is the wallflower of the southern coastal evergreen hammocks. It does not grow to the impressive architectural proportions of live oak and southern magnolia. It does not have the fragrant white flowers of sweetbay and loblolly-bay. Nor does it have the bright red berries of American holly or yaupon. If you weren’t specifically looking for it, you’d scarcely even know it was there. However, if you are on the margins of a coastal plain wetland anywhere from Texas to North Carolina, it’s likely that you’re not too far away from one of these diminutive evergreen trees.
What redbay does have is a powerful and pleasant spicy aroma in the leaves, bark, and wood. It shares this trait with practically all other members of the Lauraceae family – bay laurel (a European species from which we get bay leaves); sassafras (sassafras tea, anyone?); spicebush (a native bush that lives up to its name); camphor-laurel (an Asian species from which we get camphor); and cinnamon-tree (another Asian species that produces cinnamon). I use redbay as a substitute for bay leaves when cooking beans and chicken stock. In fact, it’s a required ingredient in authentic gumbo.
So what is the pest that is killing off this little-known tree? It’s a one-two punch, actually. The Asian ambrosia beetle Xyleborus glabratus bores into the stems and carries with it its symbiotic fungus, Raffaelea lauricola, commonly know as laurel wilt. The fungus grows and spreads in the tree’s xylem, eventually cutting off the flow of water between the roots and the leaves. According to the USDA’s Recovery Plan for laurel wilt, the disease “is now well established in the southeastern Atlantic Coastal Plain region of the U.S. and eradication of the vector and pathogen in this region is not feasible. Continued dramatic reductions in redbay populations are anticipated, although survival of redbay regeneration in the aftermath of laurel wilt epidemics suggests that redbay will not go extinct.” Super. So we can probably expect to redbays to exist as short-lived seedlings and sprouts, only to be ravaged by the foreign intruders once they reach a reasonable size.
I suppose the best thing we can do as woodworkers to preserve the heritage of this tree is to make useful things out of it that will last longer than the trees themselves. And since we’re all woodworkers here, what we really want to know about is the wood. There’s not much information about the wood in the public domain, and frankly most of the information that is out there is generic, misleading, or flat-out wrong. Hopefully I can correct some of that nonsense today. The USDA silvics manual says that redbay wood “is heavy, hard, strong, and bright red, with a thin, lighter colored sapwood.”
So does that mean that redbay could be a domestic substitute for bloodwood? Hardly. In fact, redbay is neither hard nor heavy nor strong. Though the heartwood is indeed reddish (similar in color to cherry or mahogany), it does not begin to approach “bright red” in color, nor is the sapwood band particularly thin. Was the technician who wrote this stuff just making shit up? If you want the straight dope regarding a tree species, you can do no better than to listen to urban forestry professor extraordinaire Kim Coder [from his publication Redbay (Persea borbonia): Drifting Toward Oblivion]:
Redbay wood is difficult to find in the commercial lumber or hobbyist marketplace, and then only in small pieces. As such, redbay has only limited local use as a wood material. Heartwood is redcolored, fine-grained, brittle, water resistant, works moderately well and polishes very well. It was traditionally used for tableware (like spoons), furniture pieces, boat and interior trim, and cabinets. It was gathered for boat trim in the live oak maritime forests during the live oak gathering days of early sailing vessels.
Alright, that’s a little more informative, and it’s definitely more accurate. Redbay is pretty common in the woods here on Amelia Island, so I’ve been carving spoons with it for the last couple of months, and I’ll share a bit of my personal experience with it as well. (By the way, how cool is it that Dr. Coder mentions that the wood was traditionally used for spoons? Score! It is indeed a fine spooncarving wood).
The wood is very much unlike most temperate hardwoods in that it combines large pores with a diffuse-porous wood structure. Typically, large-pored temperate hardwoods tend to be ring-porous or semi-ring porous. It definitely has the appearance of a tropical hardwood. In fact, it would easily pass as African mahogany (Khaya) to the untrained eye. Or shoot, even the well-trained eye.
It’s easy to see why this wood was favored for the interior trim of boats. Not only does it have an attractive appearance, it works quite well also. The density and hardness remind of Honduran mahogany or butternut. Which is to say, it is not very hard or dense at all. It carves very easily and takes a nice polish straight from the tool – as long as you’re cutting with the grain. It does tend to tear out around grain reversals, and the grain can be quite wavy.
Probably the most unfortunate thing about redbay wood is the fact that it does not have a significant amount of heartwood until the tree gets to be quite large in size. A 12″-diameter tree is likely to have a hardwood core only 8-9″ wide. Since larger trees have mostly been killed off by the laurel wilt in many parts of the South, this means that you’ll likely be relegated to working with the sapwood.
Not all is lost, however. As long as you are working with fresh wood, the sapwood is creamy white and attractive, not unlike walnut sapwood.
If the wood sits around for a couple of weeks or more, however, the pores begin to turn brown, which gives the wood a grayish pallor when viewed from more than a few inches away. I waited a bit too long to carve these eating spoons, and it shows:
Luckily, all eating spoons begin to take on the same brownish tint with age, so all I have to do is use these and eventually the color will improve.
So there you have it. Redbay is a disappearing tree, but it’s a fine tree for woodworking. I can personally vouch for its pleasant nature for carving, and historically, it was commonly used for cabinetry and trim (especially in boats and ships). If you happen upon some, why not try to make something from it? It’s one way to preserve this stuff for the next generations, who may not be able to enjoy the trees in the same way that we do. I’d certainly love to get my hands on some trees that are large enough to mill for lumber, since a well-built piece of furniture is likely to last longer than my wooden spoons, but my window of opportunity seems to be rapidly closing.
I’ll leave you with a few more words from Dr. Coder:
Redbay is a biological, ecological, and cultural treasure of deep woods on the edge of an ecological precipice. People of the Southern and Southeastern coasts of the United States have been blessed with redbay along wetland edges. Coastal development, forest changes, and new pests are placing redbay under more stressful conditions. This burial tree of Native Americans, this historic wood of polished trim for captain’s cabins on Yankee clippers, and this special food and home for several rare butterflies is being pushed farther into oblivion.
This unique tree species is now under attack from new pests which could destroy this old flavor of Southern gumbo. Understanding how redbay grows and how to identify the tree may help to combat threats as well as appreciate what we have always had but may have overlooked. Care is needed to sustain our redbays for the next generation.