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Punk trees leave some residents in tears

Feeling punk? It may have something to do with the foul-smelling Australian melaleuca _ also known as punk _ trees in bloom.

Imported from Australia in the early 1900s, melaleuca trees now are almost as common in southern Florida as palmetto bugs and can be even more of a nuisance.

They thrive in Florida's warm climate and grow unchecked because they left their natural enemies behind in Australia, said Julie Weston, St. Petersburg's urban forester. Because they consume four times more water per acre than saw grass, they tend to dry out every wetland they invade.

But none of that explains why Louis G. Daul hates them.

Daul, legislative chairman for the American Association of Retired Persons' Seminole Ridge chapter, hates them because he says they make people sick.

Daul has proposed that the county initiate a program to rid Pinellas of the trees. He suggests calling the campaign "Down with Punk Trees."

"Many of our older citizens in the county have respiratory problems, and when the punk trees are in bloom, eyes water and noses run and difficulty in breathing happens," Daul wrote in a recent letter to County Administrator Fred Marquis. "It is air pollution."

Actually, melaleuca trees are more like cigarette smoke: They can be quite irritating, but there's no evidence to suggest they cause allergic reactions, said Dr. Mandel Sher, an allergist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Because the melaleuca's pollen is sticky, it does not travel by air, like most pollens. When the plant is flowering, however, it emits a gaseous, foul-smelling substance that can make people with respiratory ailments uncomfortable, some authorities say.

Daul's proposed anti-punk tree program would suit William Davis just fine. As director of the county's Environmental Management Department, Davis has been battling the pesky punks for years.

Although Pinellas County requires residents in the unincorporated area to obtain permits before removing trees, it's open season on melaleucas, Brazilian peppers and other exotic foliage, Davis said. St. Petersburg also places no restrictions on the removal of punk trees, Weston said.

"In a lot of ways, they out-compete the native, more desirable vegetation, such as cypress trees, maple, sweet gum," Davis said. "They end up a monoculture of punk trees. They grow so densely and tightly that the habitat value is almost lost."

Melaleuca trees were introduced to Florida during the 1920s land boom as a means of drying up the Everglades for development, Weston said. As recently as a decade ago, a now-closed St. Petersburg department store gave the seedlings away free to whoever wanted them.

"They can overtake the natural community and exclude the native plants," Weston said. "And native plants are what native animals rely on."