Nature Study: Brazilian Pepper Tree

Do you remember that part in The Lion King when all of the hyenas are gathered together and one of them says that Mufasa’s name makes them shudder?  And then one of the hyenas says “Mufasa” and they all shudder and so one says, “Ooh say it again.”  “Mufasa.”  And the hyenas shudder again.  That scene replays in my head every time I’m out in nature and somebody calls out Posion Ivy.  Every mom in the area visibly shudders.  I feel myself shudder and shiver and frantically look around to find the offending plant.

Imagine the horror I felt when I realized that we did a spontaneous object lesson on a plant IN THE SAME FAMILY as Posion Ivy, the Anacardiaceae family?  Obviously I shuddered.  And then I researched.  Turns out there are A LOT of plants in the same family as Poison Ivy.  Turns out the Anacardiaceae family, also known as the sumac family, has lots of our favorites in it like mangoes and cashews.  So what about this invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree that grows so beautifully around here that is also in the Anacardiaceae family?  Edible?  Poisonous?   And are those little pink peppers (the drupes) the same ones in my peppercorn mix that I adore?


The Brazilian Pepper Tree (schinus terebinthifolia) is sadly not the Peruvian Pink Pepper Tree (schinus molle) that produces the delicious pink peppercorn that is all the culinary rage these days.  Peruvian pink peppercorns are not related to the well-known tropical vine that produces black peppercorns {piper nigrum}; they fall in the same Anacardiaceae family as the Brazilian Pepper Tree.  They hail from Peru but grow well here in places like California, Texas and Florida and are safe to eat and are not known to contain any urushiol-type allergens, whereas the invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree is a tragically different story (tragic only because I shudder at urushiol-type allergens, apparently, and because I adore plants that I can eat and this is one of the former and not one of the latter).

The Brazilian Pepper Tree is a large ornamental shrub or tree that is native to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay and was first brought to Florida in the mid 1800s.  Observing it showed us that it has alternate leaves that are pinnately compound.  Its leaves look very different from the Peruvian Pepper Tree, so it would be hard to confuse the two.  People who are sensitive to poison ivy, oak or sumac may also be allergic to the Brazilian Pepper Tree with reactions ranging from dermatitis to respiratory issues (respiratory issues seem to be an issue only during the blooming season).  The leaves, when crushed, have a peppery, resinous smell almost like black pepper mixed with turpentine.

While it is a pretty plant (sometimes it’s called the Christmasberry tree), it is incredibly invasive and not one to be encouraged.  Just like poison ivy, you can’t burn it to get rid of it or you’ll end up releasing its irritating chemicals into the air.  I actually had a really hard time finding reliable information about it…it did not show up in any of my plant or tree books.  If I’m reading it correctly, the FDA lists the triterpenes (a chemistry term that my brain just cannot process) of Schinus terebenthefolius as poisonous.  That being said, admire it, paint it, but consider keeping your distance.

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

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