Report dying sassafras trees to extension offices – Picayune Item


Report dying sassafras trees to extension offices

Posted at 11:18 a.m. on Friday, September 2, 2022

By Bonnie Coblentz

MSU Extension Service

STARKVILLE, Mississippi — A few sassafras trees across Mississippi have begun to show signs of dieback, and Mississippi State University is asking for help identifying affected trees.

The trees are suspected of having laurel wilt, a disease caused by a fungus that has previously proven deadly to red trees in the state. The fungus is carried by the oleander beetle, an invasive species native to Asia.

Laurel wilt and the red ambrosia beetle were first detected in Mississippi in 2009. The beetle and the fungus it carries have caused significant mortality to red trees in Mississippi, as well as in Carolina South, Georgia and Florida.

In July, the Mississippi State University Extension Service Plant Diagnostics Laboratory was contacted about sassafras trees in the state dying of what is suspected to be wilt. Laurel.

John Riggins, professor of forest entomology in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, and Plant Pathology at MSU, documented the first report of laurel wilt on Mississippi sassafras in 2011 in the journal of the American Phytopathological Society, Plant Disease.

“There are quite a few reports of it from sassafras in other states, even further north than Mississippi,” said Riggins, a researcher at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

“The assumption is that once it ran out of redbay or moved north out of redbay territory, it would wipe out the sassafras,” he said.

This appears to be what is happening, and experts are asking landowners and concerned citizens to help by reporting the dead sassafras.

“I’m sure it’s prevalent in the Mississippi sassafras right now, but unless people report it, we have no way of confirming it and tracking it,” Riggins said.

As of September 1, the Plant Diagnostics Laboratory had not yet received a sample from a dying sassafras tree. However, Clarissa Balbalian, lab manager and diagnostician, said she expected to see one soon.

“I’m getting an increasing number of calls about dying sassafras all over Mississippi,” Balbalian said. “I haven’t received any physical lab samples to confirm, but the problem is most likely laurel wilt, which is a fungus transmitted by a small, non-native beetle.

“As the beetle spreads, reports of sassafras dieback are mounting throughout the Southeast, and it makes sense that the disease is on the rise in our state as well,” she said.

The Balbalian-run lab is part of the National Plant Diagnostics Network — or NPDN — which is primarily made up of plant diagnostic labs located at major land-based universities such as MSU. In Mississippi, diseased or insect-damaged plant tissue passes through this lab, where it is diagnosed, and this information is shared within the national network.

“One of the goals of this national network is to be on the lookout for new and emerging issues,” Balbalian said. “The NPDN can alert labs and network partners, much like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does for human pathogens.”

Monitoring for this disease and other plant problems is everyone’s business.

“Every citizen of the state is what we call a first detector,” Balbalian said. “You are the eyes on the pitch, and you will see something first and be curious about it.”

Anyone who notices a plant or tree with an apparent problem is encouraged to contact their local county extension agent or the Mississippi Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry for assistance.

For more information on laurel wilt, visit the US Forest Service’s Southern Regional Extension Forestry Forest Health website at or the Mississippi Forestry Commission tree disease page at https://www.


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