Southeastern tree species dying en masse in Savannah

Local News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV)—Savannah is known for its majestic trees that line many of the city’s streets, but hundreds of trees are at risk of dying out in our area.

Savannah has lost more than 1,000 sugarberry trees (species name Celtis laevigata) in that last few years.

It’s the first species to die out in our area in recent history, but experts from the Savannah Tree Foundation say it won’t be the last.

“Since 2009, there has been a recorded die-off in pretty much all of southeastern United States, mostly focused here and in South Carolina,” Savannah Tree Foundation Executive Director Zoe Rinker said.

The Georgia Forestry Commission, the USDA, and the US Forest Service all have teams working to figure out the cause of the species dying en masse.

“For eleven years now, researchers have been trying to find out what is the cause of it and it has not been identified yet,” Rinker said.

Community members have voiced their concerns to Rinker, saying they fear there will be no sugarberries left, which would affect tree canopy loss across Chatham County.

Experts say it could be due to a possible bacterial issue, which could affect other trees in the area, like the 150-year-old live oaks that make up Savannah’s landscape.

“There was just one across the street that was taken out by the city a couple of months ago because that’s Drayton,” Rinker said. “It’s a very busy street and you can’t have something that’s potentially a danger.”

The sugarberry’s fruit feeds and provides habitat for ten species of native Georgia birds.

“But really what this highlights, and, I think, which is a bigger conversation we need to be having here, is that we need to be making sure we plant and maintain a diverse urban forest, both in species and in age,” Rinker said.

Rinker warns against cutting down these trees if you have them in your yard. She says if you have a sugarberry on your property, the best thing to do is have an arborist take a look at it.

“You want to make sure your tree is as healthy as possible, but that’s still not a guarantee,” She said. “We’re planting for tomorrow. So we need to be thinking about that and investing in the future.”

The Savannah Tree Foundation is hosting a webinar on the State of the Trees on September 8th at noon.

The first step of urban forest management is understanding what our current canopy looks like, and that is the topic for the webinar on Tuesday. Visit their website to sign up.

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