The Brazilian Pepper Tree

The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

The Brazilian pepper tree is a plant native to Brazil that has spread to other places. It is appreciated for its many benefits, yet is also considered an invasive species in some places.

It is also known as the Christmasberry tree or Florida holly, but there are many things about it not commonly known. Other names that it can go by include: American Pepper, false pepper, aguaribay, among others.

Features of the Brazilian Pepper Tree

The pepper tree is part of the same family as poison ivy or poison sumac. Just like its relatives, it can also cause an allergic reaction to people who are sensitive to the plants. There may also be problems with the respiratory system when the plant is flowering.

The false pepper tree is actually more of a shrub than a tree. It can grow to around 30 feet in height and can live over 30 years. The trunk is short and is hidden by the branches. The leaves are a reddish color and are les than an inch long.

The flowers are white and form in clusters about 2-3 inches long. The pride of the plant is the fruit, tiny green berry-like objects that turn red when ripe. The plant begins to flower in September until October and the berries mature in December and January, which is where it gains its nickname Christmasberry tree.

The tree is native to Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, but has spread to other tropical places, including areas of the southern United States and Africa. It was brought to many areas because of its beauty as a landscape plant. In some areas, it has become a nuisance because it is so easy to grow and reproduce.

Uses for the Brazilian Pepper Tree

In spite of the allergies the pepper tree can cause, it has been used for many years as a healing remedy. The bark is saved, along with the seeds, fruit, and even the leaves for use to cure and improve many illnesses.

Folk remedies include making a liquid tincture from the bark as a stimulant and tonic. It has also been used as a diuretic and for the treatment of tumors. Remedial healers have used it topically for gout, syphilis, as well as cases or rheumatism.

Other folk healers recommend the leaves and fruit to be added to baths to help heal open wounds or ulcers on the body. An interesting fact of the leaves is that when they are placed in hot water, they jerk and twist as if they were alive and moving. This happens because the oil is being released.

Indigenous people in other countries where the false pepper tree is found naturally use it to cure all sorts of illnesses. In Peru, the plant is used as a laxative and as an antiseptic. South African people steep the leaves and make a tea to heal colds faster. The dried leaves are used in Argentina for respiratory and urinary infections.

The tree is still a popular plant today in herbal treatments in many countries. It is used in Brazil for the following health problems:

  • Hypertension

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Different types of infections

  • Menstrual disorders

  • Tumors

  • Inflammation

  • Rheumatism

  • Other disorders

While it has not been proven to do everything advocates of the pepper tree claim, it has created an interest in the scientific community. Scientists have conducted research that shows there are some beneficial properties of the plant.

Scientists have shown that it has displayed antifungal actions against certain bacteria. Patents have been issued in the United States for its use as a topical application. Some research has shown the possibility that it could have positive results with cancerous tumors.

The pepper tree is also used in cooking because of its high oil contents. It has a spicy scent with a strong aroma. The berries are used to make syrups, vinegar, and beverages because of the spicy flavor. It can be added to wines and used as a pepper substitute.

It can be added to meat dishes such as lobster or pork; it also adds a unique taste to desserts. It is often called red pepper or pink pepper berry.

The fruits are harvested during the winter season in their native areas, which is May through August. They are either air dried or freeze dried to preserve them.

Concerns with the Brazilian Pepper Tree

The pepper tree can take over its surroundings because of its widespread and aggressive growth capabilities. It covers over 700,000 acres in Florida where it is not even native. The problem with such domination is that it forms such a dense canopy to shade the area that other species cannot survive.

The pepper tree not only lives in terrestrial areas but also in aquatic places. It reduces the number of other natural species that live within the same area. Because of this, many places have banned the sale and moving of the plant to other areas.

One of the issues with the plant in the areas where it is prevalent is that it can cause sinus congestion, headaches, and eye irritation. There have also been reports of birds and animals dying when they have eaten the leaves and fruit of the plant.

Once the pepper tree has been introduced into an area, it is very difficult to get rid of. It can grow back even after a fire or other devastation. There are chemicals that will kill it and prevent regrowth. You can also dig it up by the roots, but you must make sure all of the roots are removed or it will come back.

There has been a great deal of controversy about the benefits and the problems with the Brazilian pepper tree. Many locals who harvest the plant find numerous benefits to having it. One cannot deny that it is a fascinating flora to look at and understand. The Brazilian pepper tree is just one plant that has made a name for itself beyond its country of origin.

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