TAMPA — An alien species has invaded Tampa. Drawn to dredged and disturbed areas, it thrives in wetlands. It creeps in ditches and abandoned lots, along the Hillsborough River and McKay Bay — maybe even in your back yard.
Its name? Brazilian pepper.
If you've lived here for any length of time, you've seen this tree's leaves with reddish spines and finely toothed leaflets that smell like turpentine when crushed.
Slowly, silently, it kills all vegetation in its path.
Scientists from the University of South Florida and the University of Florida recently presented research to the City Council about Tampa's urban forest: how many trees we have, where they are and what kinds. The study, commissioned in 2006, cost $100,000, paid for by the city's Tree Trust Fund.
As far as inland trees go, Brazilian pepper ranked the highest at one in every three trees in Tampa.
"I had no idea that we had such a large Brazilian pepper problem," council member John Dingfelder said during the meeting last month.
Now, the city requires developers to remove invasive plants before building on any site, and parks maintenance workers do constant battle with the trees in areas like McKay Bay.
But no program exists to help homeowners get rid of them — at least not yet. The city will hold a community symposium in June to present the study's findings and get ideas from the public for a strategic plan to protect Tampa's good trees and root out the bad ones, like Brazilian pepper.
The tree stakes its claim by forming dense thickets and crowding its surroundings. It hogs sunlight and grows fast, up to 10 feet per year. Try digging up its roots, it's nearly impossible.
It caught our attention in the mid 19th century, with its glossy green leaves, red berries and white flowers. We thought it was so beautiful, we imported it, planted it in our back yards and called it "Florida holly."
Today, not so much.
We've changed our minds, said Nanette O'Hara, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program's public outreach director. "In terms of evil plants," she said, "Brazilian pepper would pretty much be public enemy No. 1."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.
The big picture regarding trees
7,817,408 Number of trees in Tampa
29 Percent of land covered by tree canopy
1,360 Tons of pollution that trees remove from the air by the process of photosynthesis