Wild Exotic Plants in Florida
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On this page - Brazilian Pepper, Melaleuca, Lantana, Earleaf Acacia, Tropical Soda Apple, Old World Climbing Fern, Beach Naupaka, Mexican Petunia, Shoebutton Ardisia

Since European explorers first made their way to its shores, brining with them food stock and plants with seeds to sow Florida has acquired over 1,300 exotic plants which are reproducing on their own in the wild & apart from human cultivation.

Exotics plants were brought to Florida for different reasons, some as food sources for early settlers, some introduced years ago by collectors as specimens and shared with friends that in turn shared with others. In more recent times many were, and still are being used for landscaping much to the dismay of many.

Not ALL exotics are bad, the problem exotic plants are considered "invasive". A lack of natural controlling factors such as climate, diseases or insect pests combined with the fact that in their native land they must often be very aggressive just to survive can give them enough of an advantage to outgrow and overwhelm Florida's native species.

Once established, invasive exotic plants displace our native plants and are difficult to eradicate. Depending on the circumstances and the species, eradication efforts may employ manual removal, chemical sprays, biological controls or more often a combination of these methods.

Controlling these plants is essential to the preservation of Florida's ecosystems and the survival of many native plants, and because native animals rely on native plants for survival they too are affected.

Wild exotic plants are divided into two classifications * In Florida there are 67 Category One exotic plants that are causing ecological damage to native plant communities and 71 Category Two plants that are spreading and increasing in range but have not yet caused ecological damage.*

More information and currently listed species of invasive plants can be found at the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council website.

Residents & landowners can help to stop the spread of damaging exotic plants and aid in the preservation of Florida's unique biodiversity.

The best stratagy is not to introduce known invasive or potentially invasive plants into home landscaping, substituting instead native species where possible and limiting the use of exotic plants to those that are not considered invasive.

Identifying and removing pre-existing invasive plants from your property will prevent the spread of exotic seeds into the wild by birds, animals and the wind.

Brazilian Pepper Tree - Schinus terebinthifolius

Brazilian Pepper tree(Schinus terebinthifolius) Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius) flower

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Anacardiaceae

Description - Perennial shrub or small tree up to 40 feet in height, forms dense thickets of tangled branches and stems. Originally introduced to Florida as an ornamental plant in the 1800's, the Brazilian Pepper has become a major pest. Flowering in the fall (Sept.-Nov.) the fruit is a small red berry that is eaten and dispersed by birds.

An aggressive invader of many habitats, the Brazilian pepper tree is estimated to occupy over 700,000 acres in central and southern Florida. Leaves have a "peppery" smell when crushed. Sap is a irritant similar to that of Poison Ivy to which it is related. Smoke from burning wood is also toxic.

Melaleuca, a.k.a. Papertree, Punk tree - Melaleuca quinquenervia

Broad-leaved paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia) Monoculture of Melaleuca trees Melaleuca tree bark

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Myrtaceae (Myrtle family)

Habitat- Prefers seasonally flooded areas but also grows in upland habitats.

Description - Height 80 to 100 feet with slender crown, leaves are 4-5 inches long, lance shaped grey-green in color produce a camphor-like smell when crushed. Yellowish-white flowers are produced on bottle brush shaped spikes to 6 inches long, followed by clusters of 3/8 inch round or cylindrical woody capsules

Seeds were intentionally scattered by air over the Everglades in the 1930's with the idea being to help dry out swamps, it is now a major pest in south Florida, particularly in wetland habitats. This fast growing (3-6 feet a year) Australian native forms very dense stands, crowding out all other plants.

Lantana, Shrub Verbena - Lantana camara

Lantana, Shrub verbena (Lantana camara) image

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Verbenaceae (Verbena family)

Description - Perennial, Deciduous. Shrub/Vine.
Height up to and over 6 feet with multiple square stems. Similar in appearance to the endemic native Lantana species (Lantana depressa Small), the native has tapered or crenate leaf bases whereas the exotic species has a squared off or truncate leaf base.

Leaves are aromatic when bruised or crushed, small flowers are held in dense flat topped clusters and may be white, pink, lavender, yellow, orange to red in a single cluster, changing color over time.

Fruit is a small green round drupe, turning purple and then blue-black. Long touted as a low maintenance landscape plant, now widespread in various habitats where it has interbred with native lantana species.

Earleaf Acacia - Acacia auriculiformis

Earleafed Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) Earleaf Acacia seed pod Earleaf Acacia trees

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Fabaceae (Leguminosae)/Pea Family

Description - Compact tree to 50 feet in height, evergreen, commonly with multiple stems/trunks. Leaves are simple, alternate, 5-8 inches long and dark green with flattened stalks. Flowers are yellow-orange in spikes at leaf axis and clusters of spikes at tips of stems. Fruit is a flat oblong pod which twists and splits open as it matures, black seeds hang by a bright orange aril.

Used in landscaping for many years since its introduction as an ornamental. Now found in pinelands, scrubs, hammocks and disturbed areas.

Tropical Soda Apple - Solanum viarum

Tropical Soda Apple (Solanum viarum Dunal)

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Solanaceae (Nightshade)

Description - Perennial, native to South America. Height to 6 feet, more common at 3 ft. or less. First discovered in Florida in 1988, has since spread to over 500,000 acres statewide. Identified by numerous straight thorns on stems and leaves and its distinctive fruit.

Fruit is a poisonous globose berry, 0.8-1.2 inch wide, green with darker veins like a miniature watermelon, turning a dull yellow at maturity. Each fruit contains hundreds of small flattish seeds and a single plants is capable of producing tens of thousands of seeds in a single season. Cattle, raccoons, deer and birds feed on the fruit and then disperse seeds.

Old World climbing fern - Lygodium japonicum

Japanese Climbing Fern (Lygodium japonicum) Oldworld climbing fern over growing natural Florida habitat

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Lygodiaceae (Climbing fern family)

Description - Perennial. Forb/Herb. Climbing with specially modified stem-like fronds 90 to 100 feet in length allow this Australian native to grow into the forest canopy, shading out even mature trees. This also allows normally beneficial ground fires to reach the tree tops and become destructive, tree killing crown fires.

Leafy branches off of main frond 2 to 5 inches long, produce two types of leaflets, one is a vegetative type of growth, the second is the spore producing type of leaflet which is common to ferns.

Beach naupaka, Hawaiian half-flower - Scaevola plumieri

Beachberry (Scaevola plumieri) image

Category - Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Goodeniaceae

Description - Large, bushy shrub to 16 ft. tall, commonly forming dense mounds. Flowers are white to pale lilac in short clusters at leaf axils, fruit is a green fleshy drupe.

Common to dunes, coastal hammocks and estuary shorelines. Once promoted for use in beach stabilization projects, now displaces native species.

Mexican Petunia - Ruellia tweediana

Britton's wild petunia (Ruellia tweediana) image

Category 1 Invasive exotic plant

Family - Acanthaceae

Description - Widely used as a landscape plant, this herbaceous perennial is extremely invasive, preferring moist soils it has been found in natural areas throughout the state. Although it is often promoted as a "butterfly nectar plant" by sellers there is no evidence to support this claim. Height to 3 feet, Trumpet shaped lavender flowers that are 1-1/4'' to 1-1/2'' across.

Shoebutton Ardisia - Ardisia elliptica

Shoebutton Ardisia (Ardisia elliptica) showing new growth Flowers of the Shoebutton Ardisia tree Fruit of the Shoebutton Ardisia tree

Category 1 Invasive plant

Family - Myrsinaceae

Habitat - Wet Flatwoods, Bottomland Forest, moist sites.

Description - Evergreen shrub or small tree to 17 feet with smooth stems. New growth is reddish. Leaves are alternate, leathery, oblong to oval with entire margins, up to 8 inches long.

Flower - Mauve, star shaped, 1/2 inch across, borne in axillary clusters. Fruit is a small rounded black drupe. Distinguished from native Marlberry by reddish new growth and flowers, which are at leaf axils rather than terminal cluster, the native Marlberry has white flowers.

Carrotwood, Tuckaroo - Cupaniopsis anacardioides

Carrotwood tree Carrotwood tree trunk and bark Carrotwood tree berries

Family - Sapindaceae

Category 1 tree originally from Australia introduced as a landscape plant, this evergreen also produces large numbers of fruit and seed that are eaten and spread by birds, creating new infestations. Carrotwood grows to around 30 feet and has dark green, leathery, pinnately compound leaves. Adaptable to various soil and moisture conditions, Carrotwood is a serious threat to native Mangrove forest and swamp habitat.