The Brazilian-pepper tree, alias Christmas-berry tree or Florida Holly, is an attractive shrub that sprouts red berries part of the year, grows tall, and spreads wide. When I first moved to Florida, I enjoyed watching the wide variety of birds that fluttered in their branches. So when the landscape crew attacked them with machetes and axes, I was enraged. Had we come to this in our obsession for perfectly trimmed hedges and weed free lawns, I thought?
Yes, I would later acknowledge, the Brazilian-pepper bushes were beginning to take over the hedgerow, and their absence meant that I could now see the field behind where cows grazed with cattle egret; but what about the birds? Hadn’t the pepper’s branches been food and refuge for the brown thrashers, the cardinals, the northern bobwhites and robins, the local mocking birds?
Before I launched into assault mode, I did some reading and investigating; turns out, that attractive Brazilian pepper is considered “one of the worst exotic pest plants” in the State of Florida. Wouldn’t you know!
Brought here from Brazil in the 1800s, the plant was used as an ornamental for its beautiful red berries and shiny green leaves. Deceivingly charming, the plant is part of the poison ivy, oak and sumac family that many people are allergic to. When crushed, the leaves smell like turpentine and can irritate the skin, nose and lungs. No wonder my allergies had flared up in Florida.
Birds also become drunk from eating the fermented berries and may harm themselves by flying into windows or oncoming traffic. Migrating birds are especially vulnerable as they devour the tempting red berries to restore body fat.
Why is the plant so prolific? Bingo: “the pepper grows well in poor soil and shade,” and spreads wildly when the conditions for growth are optimum – plenty of sunshine, plenty of rain. Birds and raccoons find the berries delicious and spread the seeds through their guano and scat.
How is that a threat to Florida?
- The pepper tree shades out native plants
- The pepper destroys foraging areas for herons, egrets and other water birds
- The pepper’s roots get so thoroughly tangled up with mangrove roots that it’s impossible to uproot them
The beautiful Brazilian-pepper is on Florida’s “do not plant” list, and its “sale is against the law.” And I thought it was a harmless shrub; if looks could kill.
Today I smile as I walk past the hedgerow. Young leaves are sprouting, filling in naked branches replenished by sun and space. The peppers are sprawled out behind them; roots exposed, leaves withering, on their last gasp. Sadly, a few yards south, a fence with a stand of pepper trees grows rampant; the property of another developer who will eventually face the removal of this encroaching invader.