Brazilian pepper berries - toxins and trouble in a pretty package!
Brazilian pepper is a small bushy evergreen tree or large shrub with compound leaves and shiny red berries. It can reach 30 ft (9.1 m) tall with a similar spread. It typically grows multi-stemmed trunks creating a tangled mass of arching and crossing branches to form dense thickets. The leaves are odd-pinnate, which is to say the leaflets are featherlike and paired, except for the single leaflet on the tip. The whole leaf is 5-8 in (12.7-20.3 cm) long; they are arranged alternately (not opposite each other) on the twigs; each of the 3-13 (usually 7) leaflets is 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) long; the rachis (midrib) is winged; and the leaves have a peppery-turpentiney smell when bruised. Throughout the summer and fall, Brazilian pepper produces 6 in (15.2 cm) panicles (clusters) of tiny white flowers, followed by bright red berrylike drupes that persist all winter until eaten by birds and other animals.
Brazilian pepper is native to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. It has been widely grown as an ornamental but has proven to be extremely invasive. Brazilian pepper has established and become naturalized in most tropical and subtropical parts of the world, including the rest of South America, Central America, the West Indies, Bermuda, Florida, California, southern Arizona, Hawaii, southern Europe, northern Africa, South Africa, southern Asia and Australia. It does best in moist (even wetland) soils, and often invades coastal habitats. The related pepper tree (S. molle) is grown as an ornamental in California and the American SW. It also has escaped cultivation and become a weed in some areas.
Culture Light: Prefers full sun. Moisture: Usually grows in moist soils, but established plants can tolerate most droughts. Hardiness: USDA Zones 9 - 11. Has been found recently growing in zone 8b. Propagation: Brazilian pepper reproduces by seeds that are dispersed by birds. It also sprouts from roots, forming tangled thickets. Cut stumps resprout profusely.
Brazilian pepper adapts enthusiastically to the wet soil conditions of irrigation and roadside ditches requiring costly periodic removal.
It's a real pity this tree is so invasive and disruptive of natural communities. Brazilian pepper is a beautiful evergreen with showy bright red berries that are used by South Floridians for Christmas decorations. Honey bees make honey from the flowers. The berries are a very important food source for wintering songbirds. American robins wintering in Florida eat tons of "Florida holly" berries, and their population has probably increased since this weed was brought to Florida. It is, in fact, the birds that have spread Brazilian pepper all around. The seeds pass through their stomachs and germinate in little plops of fertilizer!
Brazilian pepper should not be cultivated because a) it is illegal to do so in many places; b) it is disruptive of natural communities and species; c) it causes skin rashes and respiratory irritation in many people. Brazilian pepper plants should be cut off near the ground and the stump painted with a systemic herbicide such as Roundup® or Garlon®.
Brazilian pepper was imported into Florida in the 1840's as an ornamental. Since then it has spread throughout much of the peninsula. It has invaded mangrove swamps, pine forests, abandoned farm land, hardwood hammocks, roadsides, and canal banks to form dense thickets that completely shade out other plants. Some populations of endangered plants have been depleted by Brazilian pepper.
Like poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Brazilian pepper is a member of the Anacardiaceae family. Contact with most parts of Brazilian pepper can cause an itchy skin rash and sometimes inflammation and swelling of the face and eyes. The flowers and fruits can cause respiratory irritation. Just trimming Brazilian pepper, especially when in bloom, can cause these allergic reactions in many people. Ingestion of the berries causes vomiting. Interestingly, birds do not seem to be effected.
Possession and cultivation of Brazilian pepper is illegal in Florida where the species is listed on the state's official Noxious Weeds List.