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Tree to 20 m, but usually shorter and sometimes shrubby. Trunk to 1 m dbh, often leaning. Bark 1.2–2 cm thick, reddish brown, irregularly furrowed with shallow interlacing fissures and flattened ridges. Branches held more or less upright, green when young. Leaves 5–20 × 2–8 cm, lanceolate or ± ovate, broadest in the middle, base cuneate, apex acute, bright shiny green on upper surface, lower surface white-waxy, with very short appressed hairs (appearing hairless); winter buds covered with dense, reddish hairs. Inflorescence formed of a number of few-flowered, subterminal axillary cymes, with peduncles that are usually shorter than the adjacent petiole; flowers 3–3.5 mm long, yellowish green, appearing in spring. Fruits 10–12 mm, subglobose, blue-black with a white waxy bloom, maturing in autumn. Kopp 1966, Elias 1980. Distribution MEXICO; USA: Gulf and Atlantic Coastal Plain, Virginia south to Florida and Texas. Habitat Mixed forest on sandy to rich moist soils at low altitudes, especially near water. USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Conservation status Not evaluated (IUCN). Endangered in Maryland (USDA PLANTS Database 2008). Illustration NT552. Cross-reference K370.
Redbay takes its name from the reddish bark and the aromatic leaves that can be used in cooking. Its cylindrical shape with a dense crown of bright green leaves makes it a pleasant addition to the garden, but it is likely to thrive best in warm, humid locations. For this reason it is an admirable vigorous evergreen for the southeastern United States. It also does well on the West Coast, however, and a young tree at Heronswood Nursery in coastal Washington was growing vigorously when seen in 2004, when it was about 7 m tall. It is rare in Europe, and the only specimen seen in research for the current work, a 3 m tree against a wall at Glasnevin, looked rather chlorotic, although evidently growing steadily. The blue-black fruits are striking, and persist into the winter. Hogan (2008) mentions its variety pubescens (Pursh) Little, which is somewhat hairier than normal, and particularly commends a clone from Coahuila, Mexico for its silvery appressed hairs.