Some of the enduring images of Florida popular in travel literature feature lush tropical vegetation.
In truth, many of the ornamental flowers, vines, shrubs, trees and palms that thrive in our subtropical environment are not native to Florida, and natural Florida often looks much different than popular depictions on postcards and in travel brochures.
Many exotic ornamental plants are relatively harmless, easy to control and not much of a threat to local environments. But some exotic plant species have proven to be much more threatening to local environments than their attractive appearance might suggest. One of the worst offenders locally is the Brazilian pepper tree.
According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, invasive-exotic plant species like Brazilian pepper trees are introduced species that out-compete and displace native plants. Often not subject to the sort of limiting factors, such as diseases and insects, that would keep them under control in their native environments, they can quickly grow and multiply unchecked and form dense, single-species stands that dominate and alter natural environments. In time, they can actually eliminate native plant species upon which animals rely for food and shelter. Controlling invasive plants like Brazilian peppers can cost billions of dollars and are difficult to completely eradicate.
The Brazilian pepper tree is an ornamental shrub or tree native to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay that was introduced into Florida in the mid-1800s. Its bright green leaves and red berries may be attractive, but it is a known aggressive invader that has dominated hammocks, pinelands, and mangrove forests, affecting terrestrial and aquatic habitats alike. The tree, which can grow to 30 feet and live over 30 years, forms a dense canopy that shades out all other plants. Its seeds are easily spread through birds and other animals that ingest the berries.
The best way to eradicate a Brazilian pepper tree is to remove the whole tree, root system and all. Because this is difficult to do to mature trees, they are often cut to the stump as close to the ground as possible and treated with an herbicide. Care must also be taken to appropriately dispose of the cut branches to ensure that berries and seeds are destroyed and do not spread.
You can learn more about the Brazilian pepper tree and other exotic invasive plants that threaten Florida’s ecosystems here.
The UF/IFAS Pinellas County Master Gardener Program also offers workshops to identify and eradicate the Brazilian pepper and other exotic invasive plants from our local environment. Visit Extension’s website and click “Registration” for more information about the many workshops offered free of charge.