Brazilian Pepper Tree: A South Florida Invasive Plant

There are many invasive plants in South Florida, all of which degrade our beautiful native landscapes (such as the air potato vine). Some, like the Brazilian pepper tree, cause millions of dollars of damage, can kill animals that eat it (including cattle), and continue to spread at an alarming rate.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • how the invasive Brazilian pepper tree was introduced to Florida in the first place,
  • why it was eventually banned (such as the fact that it kills animals),
  • some problems you may encounter with this tree or shrub (including severe allergic reactions),
  • how to recognize a Brazilian pepper tree,
  • what to do if you have one on your property, and
  • what to plant instead of a “Florida holly” to get a similar look in your landscape.

About the Brazilian Pepper Tree

Brazilian pepper trees (Schinus terebinthifolia) are evergreens that are grown as a shrub or short tree. Sometimes spelled as Brazilian pepper-tree or Brazilian peppertree, they are most easily recognized by their fruit, which looks like bright red berries. Brazilian pepper tree foliage is often used as a Christmas decoration, which is why it is sometimes known by the names “Christmas berry, “Florida Holly,” or the “Christmasberry tree.”

Despite being associated with a festive holiday, this pepper tree is a noxious weed and is also classified in Florida as a Class 1 prohibited aquatic plant.

It is against the law to sell or plant Brazilian pepper trees, and those who have encountered them on their property bemoan how difficult they are to eradicate.

Brazilian pepper tree dense foliage

How did Brazilian pepper trees arrive in Florida?

Like many invasives, these trees were imported from their natural habitat. Originally from South America, they were brought to Florida and other southern states in the 1840s. It was brought as an ornamental and was celebrated because of the numerous red berries produced throughout the winter months. Despite its name, it is not only naturally found in Brazil, but also in Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay.

Why is the Brazilian pepper tree now banned?

It is Prolific

The Brazilian pepper tree was not officially recognized as an issue in the state of Florida until the 1960s. In the more than one hundred years since it was introduced, it’s now estimated to cover more than 700,000 acres in Florida alone. It does especially well in the southern areas of Florida, where cold weather and frost are less likely.

It Prevents the Growth of Native Species

Like other invasive species, as this tree grows, it prevents native plants from growing near it. Its canopy is so dense that the shade deters any plants from growing beneath it.

The “Florida Holly” quickly grows outside of areas where it was intentionally planted thanks to the distribution of its seeds by birds and other animals that eat the fruit. Raccoons, opossum, robins, cedar waxwings, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds have been known to eat the fruit and thus start new plantings.

It Can Harm or Kill Wildlife

While it may sound like a positive thing that the tree is providing food to animals, there is a caveat. If birds, for instance, only eat berries from the Brazilian pepper tree and nothing else, they are likely to die. In fact, scientists have noticed a decline in native robin populations in Florida because of this tree.

It Harms Agriculture and Livestock

Any time that areas of land are cleared for development, the Brazilian pepper tree takes advantage of the bare area and can quickly take over. Florida is one of the largest suppliers of cattle, specifically beef cattle. When the Brazilian pepper tree sprouts in the open grazing fields, cows often eat it and become sick or die. Many landowners and ranchers in Florida are spending extreme amounts of money yearly to remove this invasive plant from their properties to prevent losses of their livestock and agriculture.

It Harms Florida’s Ecosystem

Because it prevents other plants from growing, it replaces healthy ecosystems with a monoculture. While a variety of native plants and trees is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, a surplus of one plant (especially a non-native one), is a sign of an unhealthy area. This leads to even more problems.

Young leaves on brazilian pepper tree

What problems might you encounter with the Brazilian pepper tree?

Skin Irritation

On top of the Brazilian pepper tree’s invasive qualities, this tree or shrub has leaves and sap that can irritate your skin. Because it is in the same family as poison ivy and poison oak, reactions can include severe skin irritation.

Breathing Problems / Allergic Reactions

It’s also related to pistachios, cashews, and mangos, so if you have an allergic reaction to any of those foods, you may have some respiratory or allergy issues if you are near the tree. In this instance, you don’t even need to have contact with the tree for these breathing problems to occur.

Brazilian pepper tree green and red berries

How To Recognize A Brazilian Pepper Tree

Size and structure

At its full size, the Brazilian pepper tree can grow up to 33 feet tall and around 20 feet wide. The branches intertwine and normally hide the trunk from view.
Leaves and leaflets

The dark green leaves are oblong and sometimes have a reddish midrib. There are several leaflets on a leaf, usually 3 to 13, and the leaflets are each 1 to 2 inches long.

When very young, the sapling will have sets of leaves with 3 leaflets – two across from each other and one growing perpendicular. As the tree grows, more leaflets will be added, but always with 2 leaves across from each other and an odd one pointing out.

Young trees have leaves with serrated edges. The edges smooth out as the tree grows.

Flowers and fruit

The tree flowers from September through November in Florida, and the fruits mature by December. The flowers are small and white, and the fruit is green and glossy but matures to a bright red and can become up to 2.4 inches wide. The fruit is technically a drupe but is also called a berry.

They are so common in Florida that you have probably seen many Brazilian pepper trees without knowing it. Look for them in areas where birds congregate. They also like to grow among other bushes, sneakily growing and then overtaking the native plants over time.

Brazilian pepper tree fruit

What To Do If You Find a Brazilian Pepper Tree on Your Palm Beach Property

If you have a Brazilian pepper tree on your property, we recommend that you have it removed immediately. The trunk may also need to be treated with herbicide to prevent regrowth. If possible, the roots should be removed for the same reason.

Removing a Brazilian pepper tree can be a time-consuming process thanks to the tangle of intertwining branches and the tree’s allergenic properties. Be sure to keep the berries away from wildlife as you remove the tree to prevent new saplings from appearing. We recommend throwing the berries away (do not compost them).

It’s easier to remove a Brazilian pepper tree while it is small, so keep an eye out for this invasive seedling and remove it as soon as possible!

Wild Floridian has a great video where she demonstrates how to recognize and remove Brazilian pepper trees.

The state of Florida has spent millions of dollars trying to control the spread of this invasive tree due to its negative impact on the state, wildlife, agriculture, and residents. Removing any Brazilian pepper trees from your property can help fight this invasion.

Dahoon holly, firebush, and Simpson's stopper

What can I plant instead of a Brazilian pepper tree?

While the Brazilian pepper tree is also known as Florida holly, there are actually several native holly trees in Florida. (The Brazilian pepper tree is obviously not one of them).

Native hollies that work well in South Florida include:

  • Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine)
  • Nativa Dahoon (‘Nativa’)
  • Tensaw Dahoon (Ilex cassine ‘Tensaw’)
  • Myrtle-leaved holly (Ilex cassine var. myrtifolia)
  • Gallberry or inkberry (Ilex glabra)
  • Compact gallberry ‘Compacta’
  • Nigra gallberry ‘Nigra’
  • Krug’s holly (Ilex krugiana)
  • American holly (Ilex opaca)
  • Dwarf yaupon holly ‘Nana’
  • Schellings holly ‘Schellings Dwarf’
  • Taylor’s Rudolph dwarf yaupon ‘Taylor’s Rudolph’

Learn more about Florida hollies in this table from the University of Florida Extension.

If you enjoy the Brazilian pepper tree because of the nectar it provides for bees, consider planting a Firebush instead.

And if you like the look of the Brazilian pepper tree, consider natives such as Dahoon Holly (ilex cassine) or Simpson’s Stopper aka twinberry (Myrcianthes fragrans).

Dahoon Holly leaves and fruit

In Conclusion

If you haven’t come across a Brazilian pepper tree in your Palm Beach yard, you’re sure to soon. Knowing what they look like and how harmful they are can prevent more issues and more infestations. Be sure that anyone who works or spends time on your property is familiar with Florida’s invasive species and what to do if they encounter any.

At Coastal Gardens, we are always on the lookout for noxious weeds, invasive plants, or any other issues that may arise on your Palm Beach property. You can trust us to remove and/or control any invasive species before they become a problem.
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