Brazilian pepper tree, also known as the Christmas berry or Florida holly, is not as jolly as it may appear. Don’t be fooled by its appearance or nicknames—this tree is an invasive exotic plant. Invasive plants do not originate from their current location. They spread rapidly and cause damage to the environment, economy, and human health. The Brazilian pepper tree is no exception. Despite its small dark green leaves and bright red fruit, this plant is not a holly at all. In fact, it is a member of the same family as poison ivy. Like its itchy cousin, the tree can cause irritation and respiratory problems when in bloom (which occurs in late summer through November). The blooms make way for the characteristic holly-like berries that begin to ripen in December.
You have probably seen the Brazilian pepper tree throughout Central Florida along roadsides. It looks like a large dense shrub or small tree with many twisted stems. It is native to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. It was introduced to the United States in the mid-1800s as a pretty ornamental plant, but around the 1950s, the tree started to establish outside of cultivation. Since then, the plant has been spreading like wildfire. It’s estimated that it now covers over 700,000 acres of land across Florida. It costs the government and private land owners a significant amount of time, money, and manpower to control.
The Brazilian pepper is regulated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and is listed as a Category I invasive species by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. Possession of Brazilian pepper with the intent to sell or plant is illegal in Florida without a special permit. Despite being controlled, it spreads quickly. It is very fast growing and produces many seeds that are then dispersed by mammals and birds. It grows so densely that it can shade out other native plants, making it difficult for them to grow. This is a problem for wildlife that depend on native plants for food and habitat.
As you deck the halls this holiday season, keep in mind some actions you can take to help control this invasive plant:
- Do not plant it or encourage its growth.
- Rip it out when possible (but be careful to not do so with bare skin).
- Don’t accidentally spread it. Clean shoes, clothes, and tools after you’ve been around the tree.
For more information contact Krista Stump at UF/IFAS Extension Osceola County at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/osceola.