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Shoreline Spotlight: The Worst Invasive Plants

By Staff | Mar 6, 2019

Australian Pine tree. BILL VEACH

In honor of Invasive Awareness Week (Feb. 25-March 1), let’s talk about the worst offenders in our backyards.

An invasive is any organism (plant, animal, or other organism) introduced to an environment outside their original habitat which causes harm.

Florida has more invasive species than any other state, including reptiles, plants and pests. People love the Florida climate and so do invasives, and travelers and goods coming from airports and seaports help them get here.

The State of Florida spends over $500 million of your tax money every year in eradication efforts, many of them from the pet trade.

Examples of invasive animals are feral pigs digging up and consuming large amounts of native vegetation, and lionfish devouring large amounts of baby reef fish.

Mexican Petunia. BILL VEACH

Cane toads, iguanas, Cuban tree frogs, Rhesus monkeys, Burmese pythons and most of the lizards that are running around your yard are invasive species.

They out-compete native species and consume native bird eggs.

The focus of this article is the amount of invasive plants we have on our own Estero Island, and they are not hard to find.

The county and the Town of Fort Myers Beach will remove invasives from any county property and town-owned property, but not private property.

Homeowners are encouraged to have them removed.

March Murphy Award: Lousie “Weezie” Close The Marine Resource Task Force, or MRTF, is an advisory committee for the Fort Myers Beach Town Council. The next meeting for MRTF March 13th at 4:30 p.m. in Council chambers. The public is encouraged to come and comment. MRTF awards a "Murphy" award to someone who has been witnessed being a good environmental steward. Let's say you are diligent with bringing your reusable bags into the grocery store to avoid the single-use plastic bags. This month’s Murphy winner, Louise “Weezie” Close, does this is by shopping with reusable bags for her groceries and her produce and a large insulated bag for all her refrigerated purchases. These are available in natural cotton or muslin. They are eco-friendly and come in sets with three sizes. Weezie keeps all the bags in her car so they are convenient to grab when shopping. Thank you, Weezie, for making that extra effort to minimize damage to our ecosystem from single-use plastics. PHOTO PROVIDED

Garden centers, representatives from the University of Florida Extension office and experts from the Florida Pest Plant Society or Florida Friendly Yards program will come to your house and identify any invasives you may have.

You can also email a picture to any of these institutions for help.

Why does the state (or why should you) care about invasives?

When invasives are introduced to a new ecology, they can spread quickly and take over where native plants were formerly established, mostly because the pests that kept the plants from becoming invasive in their ‘home’ territory do not exist in the new area.

An example is the highly invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree, which in Brazil has a native beetle that covers the leaves with saliva and destroys the young plant.

Brazillian pepper spreads rapidly without this pest.

They are now covered with red peppercorns, and are visible all along San Carlos Boulevard and Summerlin Road as well.

Birds eat the peppercorns, then pass them through their digestive system, where they are ‘deposited’ wherever a bird can fly, like mangrove islands, the Matanzas Pass Preserve, Bunche Beach, Bowditch Point, and your backyard.

I have listed the top three invasives found on our island, but that is just a sample.

Complete lists can be found at the University of Florida extension: “http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/plant-directory/”>plants.ifas.ufl.edu/plant-directory/

There is also a color photo directory which I find most helpful at this link: www.plantatlas.usf.edu

The first invasive I will focus on is the Australian Pine.

These are native to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Even though it is a dead ringer for a pine, it is not actually classified as a pine at all.

It can reach 90 feet tall, and since roots spread shallowly, it is not well suited for hurricanes and frequently snaps or falls over in high winds.

It grows very fast and can quickly shade an area and crowd out native vegetation.

It spreads by seeds, which are dispersed by birds, wind and water.

It also produces a toxic substance wherever the needles fall that inhibits any other plant from germinating or spreading to that area.

Australian Pines not only coat your ground with needles, but are a risk to you and your neighbors properties during storms.

Much of the waste hauled away after Hurricane Charlie was from these trees.

The second invasive is the Umbrella tree.

Here’s what the Florida Pest Plant Society says about it: S. actinophylla (umbrella tree) is a fast-growing tree with highly invasive behavior.

Its seeds produce high densities of seedlings which are able to grow in shaded areas as well as sunny open areas.

It is able to form dense thickets that reduce light, space and nutrients available to native plants.

Most importantly, this species has a dense root network that can wreak havoc on your plumbing.

It is easily identified by its red showy flowers in bloom now on the tops of the tree.

Again, although it may grow well and serve some function, it forces out natives and can cause damage to your property.

Our third offender is the Mexican Petunia.

This is widely seen on our island and it is assumed safe. I have heard so many people say, “But I bought it at Home Depot!”

Home Depot, Lowes, and some garden centers often sell invasive species.

Their staff is not always trained to identify invasives.

Removal of this species is hard.

The root system can be intense and the seeds can last in the area for years, but there is a great native replacement.

Pull this flower out and replace with the native Ruellia caroliniensis.

These are sold at native plant nurseries, including All Native Garden Center in Fort Myers and occasionally by the Florida Native Plant Society plant sales at Koreshan State Park on Sundays.

Gardening in this climate is a joy.

There are many great, beautiful native plants that don’t grow anywhere else in the U.S.

I have always been a gardener and enjoy yardwork and nurturing plants.

Since moving here and discovering more about our island ecosystem and fragile Estero Bay, I find I enjoy researching and telling others the importance of island flora.

Many invasive species affect our Bay by displacing native plants that better anchor the shoreline, then dying quickly and leaving the shoreline prone to errosion.

Our migrating birds and butterflies rely on native plants for food, which invasives may not provide.

Our native plants also are perfectly suited for filtering the water in the Bay and are able to thrive without any watering, fertilizer, or soil additives.

Our native Cabbage Palm (Sabal palm) has been in Florida for millennia.

It is pest free, virtually hurricane proof, and provides flowers for bees to pollinate (and take the pollen for food) and fruit for migrating birds.

Another great source for native vegetation information is www.plantrealflorida.org

Happy (native plant) gardening!!!