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Despite beauty, trees pose problems

Rain trees may be gorgeous in the fall, but they are not native to Florida and are becoming invasive, experts say.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 25, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
The golden rain tree's bright colored see pods are striking, but they spread easily and sprout fast-growing seedlings.
In Tampa, golden rain trees pass for fall color.

Striking yellow flowers erupt in late September, followed by oodles of pink seed pods in October.

But that splash comes with a downside.

Experts consider rain trees "invasive," which is a fancy way of saying they might crowd out native plants if seeds escape.

"They're not destroying habitat yet," said Julie Sternfels, naturalist with the city parks department.

Yet is the key word.

Florida's leading plant experts consider rain trees, which are native to Asia, a second-tier invasive.

They don't appear to overwhelm natives as quickly as Brazilian pepper or kudzu, but the potential is still there for a slow strangle.

Each tree produces thousands of seeds that can be scattered by winds and stormwater. And like many non-natives, the seedlings are fast-growing and feisty.

"If you're not careful, you'll end up with a forest of them," Sternfels said.

Rain trees haven't stormed city parks. But Hillsborough officials have removed them from the county's natural areas.

Most people have no idea.

They see pretty shade trees that look harmless.

"We love it," said Barbara Tolbert, referring to the huge rain tree in her front yard in Culbreath Heights. "It's kept our grass nice."

The Tolbert tree is as big around as a century-old oak. It was there when the Tolberts moved in 37 years ago. Their sons, now grown, swung from its branches when they were kids.

Tolbert doesn't fret about fugitive seeds.

"My only fear is it doesn't look as good as it used to," she said. The canopy "used to be totally full."

Now it's showing its age. Rain trees probably don't live much beyond 50 years, said Steve Graham, the city's urban forester.

Some think rain trees are a nuisance, but for other reasons.

Andree Sherman has five in her front yard on Zelar Street and a sixth in the back. A virtual rain tree hammock.

Her gripe: Bugs.

The seeds draw black, teardrop-shaped insects that swarm her stoop.

"See that right there," she said, pointing to a buggy smear between door and frame. "We've had this painted twice this year."

Loretta Fazio's rain tree is the centerpiece of her yard in the South Tampa neighborhood of Bon Air. A seedling when she moved in 13 years ago, it now stands 30 feet high.

Ornamental grasses circle its base like a hula skirt. But Fazio isn't all that pleased with her tree.

In the flower bed, she pointed to its offspring. There, and there, and there . . .

"I don't get weeds, I get seedlings," she said.

Fazio didn't know her tree was a potential menace. But if experts say cut it down, she'd oblige.

The experts aren't saying that.

But Graham, the urban forester, suggested that residents not buy or plant them any more.

And Sternfels said raking up seeds and uprooting the seedlings isn't a bad idea.

"Throw 'em out," she said.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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