The Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) is an exotic species of tree that is highly invasive to Florida. It was imported in the 1840's from South America as an ornamental plant. Its bright red berries and green leaves made it a good choice for a Christmas plant. Now it has invaded every habitat in south and central Florida and is harming native species. Despite our best efforts, the plant continues to spread and kill our native plant species here in Florida. Here along the Indian River Lagoon, they are particularly good at growing in mangrove forests and killing our valuable mangroves. Since they are a tropical plant, they are not very cold tolerant and are thus limited in Florida to St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast and Cedar Key on the Gulf coast. A study in 1997 estimated that pepper trees cover over 700,000 acres in central and southern Florida. They have also been introduced to Hawaii, California and southern Arizona in the U.S.
Pepper trees can take on a tree or a shrub-like appearance and can grow up to 30-40 feet tall. They can grow multiple trunks and can even take on vine-like characteristics under certain circumstances. Their branches can grow very long and in any direction possible to reach sunlight if growing in a thick forest. They fruit all year long but this activity is concentrated in the fall from September to November.
Pepper trees are related to poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak and also can cause allergic reactions when individuals come into contact with their leaves or sap. When the wood is burned, the smoke can cause serious lung problems and is not recommended. They are aggressive colonizers, especially in disturbed areas. The tree grows quickly and can shade out native species with its thick growth pattern. It's shallow root system does not provide any shoreline stabilization or stormwater filtration that mangroves do, which are two reasons why mangroves are especially important to the IRL.