South Florida has experienced record-setting droughts over the last 11 months, and that has allowed several invasive plants that thrive on dry weather to spread, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reports.
Chief among the threatening invasive species is Melaleuca quinquenervia, also known as punk trees or paperbark tea trees. Native to Australia, the trees can live in both dry and wet areas and produce "huge quantities of seeds" which can grow into "almost impenetrable monocultures," according to the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants at the University of Florida. In places such as the Everglades, melaleuca has almost taken over, eliminating all other vegetation in many spots. This chokes out not only native plants but the wildlife that evolved to depend upon native Florida vegetation.
Melaleuca is listed as a federal noxious weed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was first brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s for use as ornamentation or for erosion control, according to the Department's National Invasive Species Information Center.
According to the Current-Argus, the period from October 2010 to June 2011 was the driest on record, which resulted in much of the Everglades trying out. The Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge at the northern portion of the Everglades was 95 percent dry at one point, the paper reports.
Not only did this allow invasive species to spread, it also cut off airboat access to many areas. Contractors hired to eliminate invasive species normally use airboats to access many swampy areas, but could not do so due to the drought.
The problem in the Everglades has been growing for years. According to a 2004 report from Environmental News Network, melaleuca was, at the time, taking over 14 to 15 acres of the Everglades ecosystem every day.
When controlled, melaleuca has many uses. In addition to stabilizing soil near lakes and other bodies of water, it forms excellent mulch, according to the Miami Herald. It was traditionally brewed as a tea by indigenous Australians to treat coughs, colds, headaches and other ills. Its bark, which sheds in like paper, can be used for wrapping food or even building shelters. Its flowers produce a strongly flavored honey, and are themselves useful for Florida's beekeeping industry, according to a report from the National Forest Service. In addition, tree oil made from a different species of melaleuca, Melaleuca alternifolia, can fight yeast infections that cause thrush.
Clearing melaleuca is an essential and expensive task for preserving Florida's wild and open spaces. The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast almost had to pass on a recent 190-acre land acquisition because it was having trouble raising the $229,000 needed to eliminate melaleuca and Brazilian peppers from the area, according to a report from the Pine Island Eagle. Last minute donations brought in the necessary funds and the foundation will be able to move forward in preserving the land, which is home to several threatened species and provides critical habitat for others.