Volunteers fight Brazilian pepper tree in Flagler County

By Jason Wheeler, Flagler County Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 29, 2015, 4:48 PM EDT
Brazilian Pepper Tree

There's something in the trees of Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve in Flagler Beach.

It is not the elusive Florida Skunk Ape though.

It's something much more real and dangerous: pepper pickers -- a group of volunteers trying to remove invasive Brazilian pepper trees from the park.

Mike Lagasse is the Flagler County Land Management Coordinator. “Even if we knock it out of this park, you know, it's in people's yards," He said. "And birds don't know boundaries, you know.”

That's because birds like the bright red berries the trees produce in the winter and have helped spread the plant.

The Brazilian pepper tree is native to Argentina, Paraguay and, of course, Brazil. It was brought to Florida in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant -- some even use it for Christmas decorations.

Unfortunately, the tree can also shade out native plants because it creates, as the University of Florida describes, "dense thickets of tangled woody stems." The tree has displaced native plants and even rare species.

Chainsaws and herbicides help with the initial fight against the invasive species, but it takes manpower to get the pepper out.

Dan Rutkowski is a pro with the chainsaw. “These guys and girls aren't young but man, they are workhorses,” he said.

Beverly Fox is one such workhorse out there on Wednesday morning.

She doesn't get discouraged that after each line of plant is removed, there seems to be another right behind it.

“The people I'm working with are wonderful." she said. "Everybody helps everybody. It's a fun group.”

But more volunteers are needed.

There are about 15 people, twice the normal size of the Pepper Pickin' Crew which has done fantastic work at nearby Gamble Rogers Recreation Area.

Are there easier ways to volunteer your time than picking these Brazilian peppers? Sure. At this site you've got the danger of snakes, mosquitoes are around and now ticks are coming out. Plus the plant itself could be toxic.

It's in the same family as poison oak and poison ivy so long sleeves and gloves are a necessity.

But you'd be hard pressed to find more rewarding work.

“I get a lot of exercise plus a little satisfaction that we've really made a difference,” Rutkoski said.

And there's no shortage of work to go around.