Brazil Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius)
Native Range: Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay
How it got here: Imported as an ornamental garden plant around 1950.
How it spreads: Birds (especially Starlings) eat the fruit and spread the seeds. Some fallen fruit also sprouts below the tree.
The Brazil Pepper is perhaps the most devastating invasive plant species in Bermuda. Locally it is often called Mexican Pepper (not to be confused with Bermuda Pepper, which is an endemic succulent). It was introduced as a garden plant prior to the 1950’s and has since successfully invaded all parts of the island. It has been so successful that it has displaced many native plants and drastically altered the habitats it has invaded.
Brazil Pepper can be seen growing out of walls, in crevices on other trees and just about anywhere they can gain a foothold. They are not bothered by sandy soil, salt or soggy conditions and have even invaded the edges of mangrove swamps.
Both male and female Pepper trees produce many white flowers in September and October, and a small number flower again from March to May. In Bermuda, Brazil Pepper flowers are an important source of pollen and nectar for honeybees, as these trees produce large quantities of both and flower at a time of year when other plants are not.
The flowers are followed by red berries which ripen in November and December. These are only found on female trees. Each contains a single seed, which are deposited island-wide in the droppings of birds that eat the fruit. The seeds have a very high germination rate, which is one reason Brazil Pepper is so invasive.
In many of Bermuda’s parks and nature reserves, the dense thickets of Brazil Pepper are used by birds for shelter and food, but largely because the Pepper has out competed other plants and that is the forest habitat that is left.
Care should be taken when removing Brazil Pepper, as it is in the same plant family as poison ivy and produces a similar skin reaction in some people. This tree is also a respiratory irritant, so should not be burned.
Small Brazil Pepper seedlings are easy to pull up by hand, so it is best to get them out while they are small. Cut large trees off as close to the ground as possible. Immediately apply a herbicide to the stump with a brush, using care not to get it on nearby plants. It is important to cover the cambium (the part of the tree right inside the bark) so brush right to the edge of the stump.
Brazil Pepper trees become quite large, so pull them out while they are young. If you don’t wish to use chemicals, persistently breaking off the new growth that sprouts from the stump will eventually kill the tree, but this must be kept up. Even herbicide-treated trees need to be monitored for re-growth.
Only the female trees have berries, so if you have many in your garden, concentrate on the berry-producers first. Trees should only be removed when not fruiting to avoid spreading the seed. Cutting off the green berries in October and November before they have a chance to ripen will also slow the spread of Brazil Pepper in your garden.