Brazilian Pepper trees may look pretty but they can be harmful to the environment. Here are reasons this invasive plant needs to be removed right away.
It was intended to serve as an ornamental accent. Yet, in the years since the Brazilian pepper tree was introduced into the state of Florida, it’s wreaked havoc on its residents. It also shows no sign of slowing down.
With its bright red berries and shiny green foliage, the tree makes for ideal holiday decor. However, don’t be fooled by its cheerfulness. This plant might be beautiful but its effects are anything but.
Causing issues ranging from skin irritation to habitat destruction, the Brazilian pepper tree is quick-growing and difficult to contain. As such, the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council has added it to its list of invasive species.
Ready to learn more about this plant, the damage its causing and the steps being taken to mitigate the issues.
What is the Brazilian Pepper Tree?
The Brazilian pepper tree is also known as the Florida Holly or the Christmasberry tree. Though its name is similar to that of the black pepper plant, the tree doesn’t contain actual pepper.
It comes from the family of flowering plants known as Anacardiaceae, also called the cashew or sumac family. Its species name is Schinus terebinthifolius.
During the late fall and winter months, it reveals clusters of small, red berries. Then, as the temperatures warm up, small white and yellow flowers spray from its branches.
The plant is defined by a compound leaf design. This means that it has multiple small leaves (usually around seven to nine) arranged opposite each other along a single stem. On the other hand, simple leaf designs only have one leaf per stem. When crushed, those leaves have a scent reminiscent of turpentine.
Found in both shrub and tree form, it can often reach heights of greater than 30 feet. It also boasts a lifetime of around three decades and can grow around 10 feet per year. Its branches form thickets that surround a short stump.
Threats to Natural Areas
Thus, it comes as no surprise why these plants were first brought into the state of Florida in the late 1890s. Though they are native to Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, it wasn’t long before they caught the eye of arborists around the globe. They were ornate and made for festive centerpieces during the holiday season.
That’s before they overtook more than 700,000 acres of state land and threatened the wildlife, plant communities and residents that call Florida home.
Though it took around 50 to 60 years for experts to recognize the tree was invading natural ecosystems, the research is clear and consistent. Now, it’s known as a “pest plant.”
As it thrives the best in warmer temperatures, the Brazilian pepper tree is most commonly found in the North Central to South Florida regions. However, it can be found in almost every corner of the state. This includes areas as far north as St. Johns Counties and extending to Santa Rosa County in the west.
It is not uncommon to see these plants cropping up in the most unlikely places. From sidewalk to power lines to ditches on the side of the road, they are unbiased when and where they put down roots.
What are Brazilian Pepper Trees Damaging?
In short, any time a Brazilian pepper tree is in an environment where it thrives, it continues to grow unencumbered. It does so with almost no regard to the land masses around it.
Even when the tree or a portion of its branches are cut down, it grows back almost immediately. It also remains relatively unimpacted by otherwise devastating weather events, including fire, heavy rainfall, and drought.
To this end, no area is fully protected from its growth. There are Brazilian pepper trees growing over wetlands, pastures, waterfronts, residential backyards, and even set-aside nature preserves. Their height makes them indestructible by much of Florida’s wildlife species, which tend to travel low to the ground.
Two of the most common ways the seeds are dispersed include birds and mammals, though some can catch stream in flowing water and move into other regions that way. Once the shrub or tree takes root and invades an area, however, finding ways to reign it back or stifle its growth is a fruitless endeavor.
At first, managing their growth was a concentrated effort. Now, however, it is a widescale endeavor that routinely requires taxpayer money to get under control. This is one of the reasons the plant was named an invasive plant within the state of Florida. Now, it is illegal for anyone in the state to grow, harvest, cultivate or transport the tree throughout the state.
Here are a few of the most devastating ways the uncontrollable growth of the Brazilian pepper tree is affecting Florida.
Wildlife and Vegetation
The dense, tightly-grown thicket that defines the Brazilian pepper tree is also what makes it so destructive to the areas around it. Its trunks have multiple stems, each of which grows erratically into an arch, crossing the stems around it.
When it grows, it essentially suffocates the vegetation underneath it and provides excessive shade that deprives underlying areas of the sunlight they need to survive.
It also produces allelopathic chemicals in the soil it inhabits. Put simply, these are biological chemicals that make it nearly impossible for other plants to thrive nearby. This can be detrimental to the land that grows along and around the Bay Area and other affected regions. Yet, the issue is more than just an aesthetic one.
When natural areas aren’t allowed to grow and thrive, the natural wildlife that depends on them for shelter and food also suffers.
To this end, as Brazilian pepper trees continue to overtake land that used to act as a hunting ground and living space for the myriad species that call Florida home, the species are being reduced at an alarming rate.
This directly affects even endangered or threatened wildlife, such as the gopher tortoise, which relies on ground burrows for shelter and survives on low-hanging plants. At the same time, species such as the root weevil, which cause irreversible damage to citrus trees around the state, find shelter, food, and refuge in the Brazilian pepper tree.
Along with grassy areas, fields, and groves, Brazilian pepper trees are also affecting the Florida shoreline. Once home to various forms of habitats ideal for fish breeding and feeding, the coast is now added to the list of areas negatively affected by the plants.
The plants feature a shallow root system that does nothing to prevent erosion and instead encourages it. Yet, though they don’t penetrate deeply into the ground, the roots take a strong hold of the ground beneath them, making them difficult to dig up.
Moreover, the shrubs and trees are also running into valuable mangroves across the state. These plants are most often found along shorelines, as they thrive in a salty environment. In fact, Florida is home to almost 470,000 acres of mangrove forests and while they’re lovely to look at, these areas are equally valuable to the natural health of the state.
Especially along the southern coast, the ecosystem of forests serves as a veritable buffer system, capturing essential nutrients and organic materials from the shore and acting as a sanctuary for the marine life that calls the state home. From crustaceans to oyster and shrimp, many species depend on mangrove forests as attachment organisms, filtering their nutrients, along with water, throughout their bodies.
When this marine life is threatened by the overgrowth of Brazilian pepper trees, it directly affects the state’s fishery development. Both commercial and residential fisheries require healthy mangrove forests to ensure their valuable species are maintained.
People with Sensitive Skin
You know to stay away from poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. You can identify those plants in the woods and have memorized the familiar “Leaves of three, let it be” mantra. Yet, residents and visitors of Florida must also be on the lookout for another plant that could cause them to break out into an itchy and uncomfortable rash: the Brazilian pepper tree.
When those with sensitive skin come into contact with the sap located on the leaves of the plant, they can develop a dermatitis reaction. Though the main symptom of such a reaction is a harmless yet aggravating rash, it can also lead to inflammation at the affected site, along with swelling along the eyes and face. Reports of respiratory irritation have also been provided.
If you’re working in your yard or heading outdoors, be sure to wear protective clothing, including gloves if you’re working in the garden.
What You Can Do to Help
Controlling the spread of the Brazilian pepper tree starts with knowledge. The more you learn about this plant, the more informed and prepared you can be to share about it with others.
Yet, all of the knowledge in the world won’t be useful unless you know precisely how to identify the plant in the wild. Before pulling up or cutting down any shrub or tree, even in the name of saving the species and land area around it, ask an expert for help.
Many species of plants native to the Florida region share similar qualities to that of the Brazilian pepper plant, including glossy leaves. Not sure what you’re looking at? Check to see if the leaves form a compound structure. Then, look for berries or flowers. If you’re still in doubt, crush the leaves in your hand to discern the scent of turpentine.
There are Brazilian pepper eradication parties all around the state. Hop online and find one near you to plug in, participate in activities and spread the word. One resource through which to find these programs is the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Created by Congress in 1991, the program is designed to help protect and preserve the Bay Area through environmentally sound procedures and management plans.
How to Remove a Brazilian Pepper Tree
Though it might be tempting to do the job yourself, it’s best to bring in the professionals when you spot a Brazilian pepper tree on your property that needs removing.
Why? It may seem like a simple and straightforward process. But, unless you cut down the tree in the correct way, you’ll be wasting your time and it will be back again very soon. Depending on the size of the tree, it could also be a dangerous undertaking. There is a methodical process to successful eradication and a professional is well-versed in it.
Thus, don’t hesitate to bring in a tree service expert to tackle even a seemingly small project. If you do spot a sapling, you can remove it via hand pulling or by applying a herbicide treatment following proper safety precautions. Anything larger-scale than that is best left in the hands of those trained in this regard
Fighting the Threat of Brazilian Pepper Trees
It is important for every resident in Florida to be aware of how these beautiful but destructive plants are affecting the everyday lives of the people and animals who call this state their home.
Learn as much as you can, follow related news and updates and join an applicable preservation program.
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