by Matt Gibson
The Brazilian pepper tree is one of the most hated plant species in the world, and there are plenty of reasons why. A native of South America, specifically Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, the Brazilian pepper tree was mistakenly brought to Florida in the 1840’s as an ornamental plant. Due to its highly competitive and invasive nature, the Brazilian pepper plant quickly spread its way across the continent, pushing out native plant species all across the southern United States from coast to coast in USDA zones nine through 11.
The Brazilian pepper tree didn’t stop its push for domination at the coastal boundaries of North America either, as the plant is now considered a noxious weed in several South African nations. The Brazilian shrub is also considered an invasive plant in temperate regions all around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and many smaller island nations.
As knowledge of the invasive tree’s prolific and unwanted travels are now widespread, many regions are doing their part to fight against its spread in favor of less invasive native species. Florida now lists the Brazilian pepper tree as a noxious weed and have prohibited the plant entirely in the state’s aquatic regions. The state of Texas, which has seen lots of native plant loss due to the spread of the Brazilian pepper tree, also lists it as a noxious weed, and encourages property owners to remove it from their properties in order to help stop its ever-increasing spread.
But getting rid of the Brazilian pepper tree is a very tall task, as park rangers and land owners across USDA zones nine through 11 will testify. The tree is removed by several different methods. One removal method is to cut the trees down at the base of their trunks, removing the remainder of the trunk and root system by hand. Some roots are especially long, and must be cut, then followed to their base and removed completely, as a new tree could easily sprout up from any roots that are left in the soil.
Another removal process involves cutting down the trees, leaving a stump, and then treating the stump with systemic herbicides mixed with a subversive carrier oil. The herbicides stop the plant from regrowing, but complete stump and root removal is still recommended. The systemic herbicides can also be applied to the bark or the leaves of the tree to stop the growth of the tree as well, but you will still be tasked with removing it from the ground, so for larger trees and shrubs, cutting them down first just makes more sense. Some removal techniques even include burning the invasive trees down to their roots, but new seedlings can even find a way to emerge from charred root parts that remain beneath the soil.
But even with these, all very strenuous removal methods, there are widespread reports that the trees have a tendency to keep coming back, time and time again, only to have to be removed once more. The best time to treat the trees with systemic herbicides is during the flowering period, which can lead to new seedlings sprouting up almost immediately after the larger trees are removed. In many states, the Brazilian pepper tree is among the most hated invasive plant species, due to their size, spread, and persistence.
Your work is never done when removing the Brazilian pepper plant from a property. Once you have removed all traces of the tree from the landscape, you must then carefully eradicate all roots from the ground and then monitor and eliminate any new pop ups for six months after the initial removal. Even after all of that, a vigilant eye must still be kept to keep your property safe from another Brazilian pepper tree invasion. The red berries which the tree produces from late fall into the winter, are a popular food source for several species of migratory birds, and can easily find their way back to your property in the form of bird poop.
The versatility of the Brazilian pepper tree makes its spread an even more dangerous and discouraging problem. While the majority of invasive plants are either terrestrial or aquatic, the Brazilian pepper tree thrives on land, and in water. To make matters even worse, the shrub belongs to the same plant family as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Like its siblings, contact with the stems or foliage of this invasive plant can result in skin irritation and rashes.
So, there are obviously plenty of reasons to avoid the Brazilian pepper tree and to keep an eye out for any signs of the noxious invader on your property. However, don’t mistake the Brazilian pepper tree for the similar looking, but preferred holly tree, which is a native tree which grows in the same climate as the Brazilian pepper tree. The holly tree shares many similar characteristics with the Brazilian pepper tree, including striking green leaves and red berries. A closer look at the leaf pattern on the trees will help you to differentiate between the two more easily. While the Brazilian pepper tree has an alternating leaf arrangement consisting of smaller leaflets, the holly tree has a singular leaf design. Perhaps the best way to tell if you are dealing with a Brazilian pepper tree, is to break one of its leaves. If the snapped foliage produces a slightly noxious smell similar to pepper, or turpentine, the Brazilian pepper tree has arrived.
The Brazilian pepper tree does not produce peppers, but instead draws its name from its peppery aroma. The smell of the invasive tree can actually cause respiratory problems for some people with extended exposure. Brazilian pepper trees come in many different sizes, ranging from a small shrub (as it is often found when growing in a shaded location), to a large tree, which can grow up to 30 feet tall with an average 30 year lifespan.
The most commonly used removal method is to cut the large trees down to their stumps and immediately treat the stumps with Triclopyr 4, a systemic herbicide that is used to halt growth from the tree’s base, down into its root system. For smaller plants and seedlings, a foliar treatment can be used, followed by complete removal of the plant and its root systems.
If you have an outbreak of Brazilian pepper trees on your property, follow these steps. First, cut down large shrubs and trees down to the ground leaving only a small trunk. Then, immediately spray the newly exposed stump wood with Triclopyr ester. Avoid cutting down your Brazilian pepper trees when their berries are present, as this will encourage seed spreading.
During the fall flowering stage, prior to the emergence of berries, you can treat the bark of uncut trees by applying a mixture of Triclopyr ester and a penetrating oil to the bark about one foot above ground level. Lastly, apply Triclopyr ester as a foliar spray on any new Brazilian pepper seedlings, completely covering the leaves. Any glyphosate-based systemic herbicidal spray can be substituted for Triclopyr if necessary. Within two weeks of herbicidal treatment, dig up and remove all pieces of Brazilian pepper tree from your property.
Though removing the Braziliab pepper tree is a trying process, keeping an eye out for seedlings, and removing them on sight is a much easier task to tackle. So, if you are lucky enough to have a property that is free from the grasp of the invasive Brazilian pepper tree, count yourself lucky, and keep your eyes peeled for uninvited guests.