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Living Sanibel: Brazilian pepper

By Staff | Jul 5, 2017

Brazilian pepper berries. CHARLES SOBCZAK

Introduced into Florida around 1891, Brazilian pepper represents a classic and costly example of the tremendous amount of damage a single species can do to an environment. Sanibel and Captiva have spent well over a million dollars in an endless battle to rid the islands of this troublesome shrub. Because the bright red berries are a prized food for robins, starlings, mockingbirds and a host of passerines, the seeds contained within are relentlessly spread across the landscape.

The City of Sanibel has been working since 1998 to eradicate all Brazilian pepper plants from the island. This task is tantamount to the myth of Sisyphus, wherein the Greek King is punished by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again. Like this Sisyphean myth the job of getting all the pepper off of Sanibel and Captiva is an endless task. To help manage the problem the City of Sanibel has divided the island into six zones, and they are currently working on the fourth zone, with the final two zones hopefully completed within the next few years. All of the preserve lands on the island have been cleared of pepper and annual maintenance, because of the spreading of the seeds by birds, is conducted in all of these preserves. With some of these preserves, such as the Sanibel Garden Preserve, covering 265 acres alone, the task is enormous.

A mature Brazilian pepper forest is an ecological nightmare. The plants form a continuous mono-cultures of growth, shading out almost every living thing in the under story. The trunks and branches twist and tangle making the forest equally useless for most wildlife. In Brazil, where the plant originated, there are ample natural controls for the plant. In Florida none of these exist and controlling its rampant spread is left to us. There are sections of Lee County where Brazilian forests cover tens of thousands of acres and there is no financially viable method of eradicating these massive pepper forests.

In South America the berries of this plant are dried and sold as pink peppercorns. These in turn are used as a cooking spice, adding a pepper-like taste to food. If you crush a pepper tree leaf in your hand and smell it, the scent is distinctively pepper-like. You should be aware of the fact that some people are allergic to Brazilian pepper and have a reaction not dissimilar to that of contact with poison ivy. The treatment and remedies for pepper dermatitis are virtually identical.

Sadly, it is still all too easy to find Brazilian pepper plants on the island. Look for them on vacant lots, near beach access locations or just about anywhere. The bright red berries, which are most obvious around December, make them easy to identify. The species is legally prohibited from sale, transport or planting anywhere in Florida and it is not available and any nursery in the state.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.