Busting Brazilian Pepper in Florida is Much Like Battling Buckthorn in Wisconsin

On Nov. 9 I helped other Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited volunteers clear buckthorn and box elders along a fishing easement on the upper Kinnickinnic River in a beautiful stand of white pines. We used chain saws and loppers to cut the brush and treated the cut stumps with Garlon herbicide to prevent re-sprouts. Teachers and parents will bring students from Greenwood Elementary School in River Falls to the site later this month to drag and burn the brush on a bonfire.

Carol and I left our home east of River Falls on Friday, Nov. 29, driving south on icy roads through Minnesota into central Iowa. After staying with friends in Missouri and driving through intense thunderstorms Saturday in Mississippi, we arrived at our winter home Sunday, Dec. 1, in Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Cedar Key is a small city of about 800 people located on an island at the end of State Highway 24 on the wild “Nature Coast” in the Big Bend of Florida. Cedar Key is surrounded by salt marsh, mangroves and islands in the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Florida has many invasive plant species, but around Cedar Key, Brazilian pepper has gained a foothold.

Brazilian pepper is a large shrub or small tree that can grow up to 30 feet high. It has bright green leaves and red berries. Native to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, Brazilian pepper was brought to North America as an ornamental plant, often used for Christmas decorations.

Brazilian pepper trees are now distributed throughout much of southern and central Florida. It is an aggressive invader like buckthorn in Wisconsin, producing many seeds that are distributed by birds. Like buckthorn in Wisconsin, Brazilian pepper tree produces a dense canopy that shades out all other plants and provides poor habitat for native species.

Carol and I are volunteers with Friends of Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Roger McDaniels, Refuge Friends Board Member and President of the Cedar Key Garden Club, obtained a grant for invasive species control. The refuge purchased safety gear, loppers, saws and herbicide for controlling Brazilian pepper. Refuge fire management officer Vic Doig created an invasive plants brochure to inform the visiting public and new residents.

A dedicated group of “Pepper Busters” meets Thursday mornings in fall and winter to seek and destroy Brazilian peppers. McDaniels has an eagle eye for spotting pepper trees. We go to places where Brazilian pepper trees have cropped up, often reported by area residents. Because Brazilian pepper can grow in wet areas and is in the poison ivy family that can cause dermatitis on some people, we wear knee boots, long pants, gloves and long-sleeved shirts.

We sometimes go by land to get to places for busting pepper trees; other times we go by boat. Last Thursday we went to some islands to the north of Cedar Key. Vic Doig piloted the Refuge air boat and we landed on an oyster shell beach.

On the way we watched a bottlenose dolphin throwing a roostertail as it chased mullet in shallow water.

We cut Brazilian peppers and treated stumps with the same Garlon herbicide that we use on buckthorn in Wisconsin. It was hard work in thick prickly brush. We dragged the cut Brazilian pepper trees with berries out into the salt marsh where the salt water will kill the seeds.

Battling buckthorn in Wisconsin and Brazilian pepper busting in Florida are good things to do to protect wildlife habitat. The work and camaraderie are fun and we get to be in beautiful places.