Sunday, May 4, 2008

Bad rap on exotic cherry is the pits

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 4, 2008)

I just picked the first fruits from my Surinam cherry bushes. If you've never heard of Surinam cherries, you're not alone. Unless you're from a West Indian or South American country, you're probably unfamiliar with the small red-to-black fruit that grows on this common hedge plant.

Also called Brazilian cherry, cayenne cherry or the more exotic moniker pitanga, Surinam cherry is more bush than tree. This evergreen shrub with glossy red-green leaves is being used in the Amazon for rain-forest reforestation because its fruit is an important food source for many species of birds.

While birds might be attracted to the slightly acidic marble-sized fruit, most people aren't. Even in my own fruit-loving family, my son Timmy, daughter Amber and I are the only ones who get excited about these sweet-'n'-sour cherries.

Always intrigued by the unusual, and particularly fond of cherries in general, I stumbled upon pitangas many years ago at a local nursery. Unfortunately, winter killed my first couple of plants. Although mature specimens are tolerant of cold weather, young plants are easily damaged when the thermometer takes a nose dive.

Five years ago, I tried again after visiting a friend whose established plants were covered with fruit. This time, thanks to a warmer series of winters, none died. They didn't bear fruit either. It was only after being transplanted to a spot with rich soil that they flourished. While none of my four plants are producing quantities of cherries, they provide enough to satisfy my taste for the exotic.

I am enjoying my Surinam cherries, but according to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, I shouldn't be. My edible hedge plant is one of 67 exotic imports on the council's Category I "bad plant" list. If you go to the council's Web site,, you'll see pitanga along with 66 other plants labeled "invasive exotics that are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives."

I certainly don't want to upset the ecological balance but I have a hard time understanding why Surinam cherries are considered so evil. My young plants were killed by cold, and the mature plants didn't produce fruit until they were transplanted to a spot with rich soil. Yes, the birds like them and probably spread the seeds to other habitats, but isn't that a good thing? I thought it was a positive step to add to the landscape low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that provide sources of food and shelter for wildlife.

Anyone who takes the time to explore the FLEPPC Web site will be surprised by how many well-loved plants are listed as harbingers of environmental havoc. That fragrant camphor tree shading your front yard -- it's on the list. So is the Japanese honeysuckle vine on your trellis and the nandina in your flowerbed. Two kinds of guavas are labeled no-nos, as well as two species of ligustrum. The popular ruellia, better known as Mexican petunia, is considered a Category I plant along with the much-favored lantana.

I have no doubt there are "bad guys" in the horticultural world. No one will question the invasiveness of hydrilla that clogs up lakes, rivers and streams or the climbing vine kudzu that covers and smothers trees. While those plants are on the FLEPPC list, other invasives aren't. Where I live, fox grapes are a menace. Their roots are unstoppable, their tentacles tenacious. They choke the life out of any trees they climb and are impossible to control. But because wild fox grape is a Florida native, the council gives it and other native plants a free pass.

What's wrong with this picture? I appreciate the efforts of the volunteer FLEPPC staff -- a dedicated group of plant management professionals -- but I don't think their decisions should be accepted unquestioningly. Some of the same qualities that label a plant invasive -- its need for little to no maintenance, ability to tolerate drought and prosper under adverse conditions -- are also qualities that make it attractive to the home gardener. And if it also attracts wildlife, provides food, fragrance, color and variety, so much the better.

If I have to fuss over a plant, I won't grow it. If it requires regular applications of herbicides or chemicals to stave off diseases, it's the wrong plant for my yard. And, in these environmentally sensitive times, it may also be the wrong plant for the planet at large.

If you stop to think about it, most of us who live in Florida are invasive exotics. We come here from out of state to live on land that was once wild. The space we take up with our homes and workplaces, shopping centers, highways and airports is land that once supported a wide range of plant and animal communities. But no one is putting Ohioans or New Yorkers on a Category I list of community-changing species or suggesting we eradicate these native-displacers from the landscape.

It might not be politically correct, but I'm glad I'm growing the Surinam cherry. It's a tasty, fuss-free plant that I feel safe adding to my landscape. If it shows signs of invasiveness, I may reconsider, but, for now, it's a keeper.

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