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Palmetto Beach

Pepper patrol tries to nip pesky plant

Volunteers gather at McKay Bay Nature Park to clear path of Brazilian pepper, one of the most vicious non-native plants to plague Florida.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003


McKay Bay Nature Park became a battleground last weekend.

Armed with clippers, chainsaws and chemical weapons, more than 50 volunteer soldiers hacked at the enemy horde, then left abandoned limbs to decompose and stumps to be sprayed with poison.

Several hours later, they declared a cease fire, satisfied the tide had turned, if only briefly.

They know the enemy will never, ever, wave a white flag.

The enemy, in this case, is Brazilian pepper, one of the most vicious non-native plants to ever plague the Sunshine State.

The best the good guys can hope for is to clear the marauders out of semi-natural areas like McKay Bay Nature Park, then defend that hard-won turf until, well, forever.

"It's a battle in which we will never declare victory," said Nanette Holland with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which organized Saturday's outing. "We'll never banish (Brazilian pepper), but we can keep it under control."

Brought to Florida in the 1800s to pretty up yards, Brazilian pepper now infests more than 700,000 acres. There are many bad plants in the state, but in Tampa the swarthy green shrub with beady red seeds tops the Most Wanted list.

Native plants shudder when it sprouts in their direction.

It grows up to 10 feet per year. It grows back if cut down. Floods and drought don't bother it too much. Neither does salt.

In Florida, it has no natural predators. And it produces seeds by the thousands. To make things worse, birds love the seeds -- which means they're scattered far and wide after every meal.

As long as Brazilian pepper remains a fugitive, parks and wild spaces will be under siege.

McKay Bay Nature Park is a 40-acre greenspace southeast of Ybor City. About half of it is dominated by Brazilian pepper. In recent years, though, the city parks department and its allies have gained a foothold.

"This is our strategy: We start in a core and keep moving out," said city naturalist Julie Sternfels.

City employees engage Brazilian pepper in small skirmishes several times a year, then re-plant natives like wax myrtle and red cedar.

Events like Saturday's help them mount big offensives all at once.

"They say it's pretty nasty," said U.S. Army Maj. Chuck Heimann, as he heaped pepper carcasses in piles.

Heimann and 15 other members of the Tampa Bay Airborne Association were among the volunteers who pitched in Saturday.

Army guys "love to play in the woods," joked Heimann, who is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.

"We're here to take care of our own," he continued. "But we're also here to help the community."

As Heimann talked, chainsaws whined. Guys with plastic tanks strapped to their backs sprayed each stump with a pink-dyed herbicide.

The herbicide should keep the pepper from rising again. The dye is to keep future pepper slayers from re-spraying the same stump.

Saturday's goal was to re-establish a path that leads 1,400 feet to a scenic overlook. Brazilian pepper had grown so thickly on both sides that the path became shadowy and impassable.

"I don't even recognize it," said volunteer Mike Fite of Lutz, who visited the park a few years ago.

"I want to clear this trail so I can see some birds," Fite said. "I like nature. I don't like Brazilian pepper."

As the volunteers snipped and stacked, the trail re-emerged. Sunshine streamed in, highlighting all the beady red seeds looking to root.

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

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