Florida Battles Invasive Melaleuca Acre By Acre
FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida, November 2, 2004 (ENS) - Melaleuca is an exotic invasive tree that was introduced into South Florida from Australia in the late 19th century. Used extensively as an ornamental plant and as a soil stabilizer in swampy areas near lakes and canals, no one guessed that it would one day displace native plants and animals, draw up water from wetlands, and create a fire hazard.
Now, more than a century later, Melaleuca quinquenervia, also called punk tree, paperbark tree, or cajeput, is seen as one of the Florida Everglades ecosystem's worst enemies. It causes as much as $168 million in environmental losses every year and takes over 14 to 15 acres a day.
A collaborative effort to wipe out the melaleuca, called the TAME Melaleuca Project, is being carried out by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and the South Florida Water Management District.
In 1990, the South Florida Water Management District began an aggressive campaign to lower melaleuca populations across South Florida. As a result, melaleuca acreage on public lands has decreased dramatically. But the 60 to 100 foot tall trees continue to spread at such a high rate on private property that there has been little decrease in overall acreage covered.
"That's because controlling melaleuca is tricky," says Cressida Silvers, an entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale. "The high volume of seeds held in the tree's canopy helps this species to disperse and establish."
Traditional controls, such as spraying the trees with herbicide or cutting them down and applying herbicide to the remaining stumps, have had some effect, but a comprehensive approach is needed to increase the long-term effectiveness of management efforts.
Any discussion of melaleuca management should stress the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), says Silvers. IPM integrates various control methods, and for melaleuca these are principally mechanical, chemical, and biological control agents. All three are needed to successfully control melaleuca, and any one method will not control trees.
While herbicides will kill trees, they cannot keep up with seed production, Silvers explains. "Biological control agents decrease seed production and growth rates, but don't usually kill trees. Unless a stump is ground, trees will resprout after being cut down. Thus, a combination of all tactics is the only way we will ever win the war on melaleuca."
ARS scientists and colleagues have found great success with the second biological control agent, the aphid-like psyllid Boreioglycaspis melaleucae. This tiny insect is another natural enemy of melaleuca from Australia, and both adults and young psyllids feed on the tree's sap.
Insect number three is the melaleuca bud gall fly, Fergusonina turneri. The female gall fly lays her eggs in young buds, causing the plant to form galls.
But herbicide and mechanical methods are still needed. Herbicide is sprayed from aircraft over large areas where melaleuca is dense or hard to reach by other means. Aerial applications kill standing melaleuca, but after the treated trees release their seeds, the emerging seedlings require treatment. Because biocontrol insects are self-perpetuating, they are an ideal tool for locations that are difficult to reach.
The feller buncher is a smaller machine, with pinchers and a saw at the end. It saws off the tree at the trunk, applies herbicide to the stump, takes multiple trees at a time with its pinchers, carriers them like a flower bunch, and stacks them in piles. Piling up the melaleuca trees limits the area where seeds will fall, making the inevitable carpet of seedlings smaller and more manageable.
TAME Melaleuca has set up nine demonstration sites around South Florida that range from small, less than10 acres, to large,greater than 100 acres. The Everglades Buffer Strip at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, for example, is nearly 105 acres of dense melaleuca and other invasive plants, such as Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, located along U.S. Highway 27 in Broward County.
Here, four separate plots each received a different herbicide or mix of herbicides. The dead trees were stacked to reduce the amount of acreage where the seeds would fall.
Still, the trees are difficult to eradicate.
Melaleuca is regulated by the state of Florida and the federal government as a noxious weed. Melaleuca trees may also be locally regulated, as they are in Palm Beach and Lee Counties.
There are few beneficial uses of the melaleuca quinquenervia. It has few commercial uses but could be used for cellulose or as a fuel. As a nectar and pollen source it is important to the beekeeping industry.
Melaleuca appears to be a respiratory irritant when found close to human habitations and seems to repel mosquitos.