They marched into battle Saturday with loppers and bow saws, and methodically hacked their targets to pieces.
People vs. trees.
It didn't look like a fair fight.
But here on the Eckerd College campus in St. Petersburg, the students in Kip Curtis' environmental studies class know that when you're grappling with bad plants, people are the underdogs.
Over the past three years, about 200 Eckerd students have worked to right an 8-acre patch of Florida run amok. The overgrown "Palm Hammock Nature Area," on the west end of campus, isn't dominated by palms, and it's a far cry from natural. But the area hasn't been buried under concrete and asphalt, which means with the right management, it can be reshaped into something like Old Florida again.
"Wilderness doesn't have to be 1,000 miles away," Curtis said.
The professor and his students have grand, botanical visions for the hammock. They see live oak and buttonwood, sea grape and passion flower. But for now, the reality is mostly this:
A monotonous stand of shrubby trees. Dripping with millions of berries.
• • •
Forget Burmese pythons.
In Florida, alien menaces don't just slither. Some of the worst smother just by standing there.
Kudzu. Melaleuca. Chinese tallow. Australian pine. Air potato.
It's no wonder how so many of them got here.
The berries of Ardesia are impossibly red. They look like Christmas holly.
Mexican petunia radiate purple. After a good rain, they perk to life next to the entrance of the St. Petersburg Times.
How can pretty plants be so terrible?
Turn your back. Another patch will pop up across the street, then next to the creek, then down by the shore.
Before you know it, what took eons to become so perfectly Florida is just another slice of Anywhere.
• • •
On one global foundation's list of the worst alien species, Brazilian pepper is No. 84.
Since arriving from South America in the mid 1800s, it has infested 700,000 acres of Florida, including massive chunks around the Tampa Bay area.
It's there in the park. By the pond. Next to the bay.
In north St. Petersburg, there's an apartment complex named after it. In hundreds of other neighborhoods, it's pruned by folks who don't realize they're harboring fugitives.
Curtis and his students think they can lick the pepper — and do it without using plant poison. The key is timing.
As bad as Brazilian pepper is, its little red seeds can't live forever. Maybe two months. So in Palm Hammock, the Eckerd students chop down pepper trees at a time when other plants — native plants — can rise up instead.
We're "helping Florida restore itself," said David Durieux, 21 a junior in marine biology.
On Saturday, about 20 of them went at it.
They snipped and clipped, sawed and scooped. Piece by piece, they pared back branches and uprooted stumps, then left the remains in heaps.
"They just take over everything," said Jacquie Ayala, 21, a senior in environmental studies. Three years ago, "there really was nothing else here. And you missed this whole beautiful ecosystem that was underneath."
Now what was underneath is sprouting.
Broom sedge, dog fennel, native grasses — where Brazilian pepper used to be, a dense meadow is surging, and paving the way for more familiar plants.
Like a couple of little live oaks, already hip high.
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.