Are Brazilian Pepper Trees Toxic?

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The Brazilian pepper tree is a highly aggressive, prolific and hardy shrub. This subtropical plant species is a relative of poison ivy. Physical contact with sap can cause severe skin irritation in the form of rash and itching. Airborne bloom emissions can cause sinus and nasal congestion, chest pains, sneezing, headaches and eye irritation to people in close proximity to the plant. If consumed, the bark, leaves and fruits of the Brazilian pepper tree are toxic to humans, other mammals and birds.

Identification

  • The Brazilian pepper tree is a large, multi-stemmed, evergreen shrub or tree that grows up to 33 feet in height. Arched and densely tangled branches originate from short trunks. Leaves, which are green with a red midrib, produce a turpentine-like smell when crushed. White flower clusters appear on both male and female Brazilian pepper trees. On female trees, flowering is followed by the appearance of glossy, green fruits that turn red and fleshy when ripe.

Distribution

  • The Brazilian pepper tree is native to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Since the 1800s it has spread throughout subtropical regions of the world and is now naturalized in over 20 countries. Within the Unites States it is found in disturbed habitats as well as natural areas of Florida, Hawaii, Texas, California, Louisiana and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Environmental Impact

  • The Brazilian pepper tree is a pioneer of disturbed sites, which includes highway and powerline rights-of-way. Once established in an area it quickly invades adjacent habitats, frequently displacing more desirable native plants. Brazilian pepper trees are highly tolerant of harsh site conditions including shade, saline soil and humidity. Its establishment success has resulted in vast areas of Brazilian pepper tree mono-cultures, completely void of plant and animal biodiversity.

Beneficial Uses

  • Given that many states seek to eradicate Brazilian pepper trees, much of the focus is on use of destroyed plants. The wood quality of these shrubs is poor; however, it can be used to make small products such as fence posts and toothpicks. Also organic mulch can be derived from the male Brazilian pepper trees. In addition, despite its toxic properties, the Brazilian pepper tree is a significant source of nectar and pollen for bees in Hawaii and Florida. From it, local bees produce a vaguely peppery tasting honey.

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