Melaleuca-A Really Bad Idea
I had a good idea once that involved a pile of holiday gift wrap, a match and a hay barn. It was the day after Christmas and I figured I could easily dispose of a hefty amount of paper by burning it and the hay barn was the perfect shelter from the frigid, winter winds of upstate New York. It turns out it was a bad idea and that’s often how poorly thought through ideas go.
Another case in point is the introduction of Melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia) to the Everglades region of south Florida. In Australia where the “punk tree” is native, the Melaleuca is perfectly suited for a wet/dry season, soaking up the summer rains which sustain the tree through the dry winters. Florida has a similar wet/dry season but decades ago the wetlands of the Everglades stayed persistently wet despite the lack of rainfall. The waterlogged soil was considered useless for farming and the flooded terrain ill suited for any sort of permanent structures. But if one were to drain the landscape they could establish one of the most productive regions in North America. Agriculture could flourish. Cities would spring up and the people would come in droves!
When Melaleuca was introduced over 100 years ago, it was considered a great idea. By 1993, close to 500,000 acres of land had been invaded by the noxious weed of a tree, amounting to nearly 20% of all natural land in south Florida. The cream-colored, exfoliating bark of the slender trunked tree is unique in Florida’s subtropics and to the misfortune of those with allergies, the bi-annual bottlebrush-shaped blooms explode like fireworks casting millions of seeds out per tree.
The tree grows quickly and in dense clusters, crowding out native vegetation and offering little use to Florida’s native wildlife. One of the few positive attributes is that it makes for fantastic mulch and alleviates harvesting pressure on the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), a slow-growing, rot-resistant native that has been used heavily for mulch in recent years.
A seemingly good idea can turn sour quickly and although I still cringe at the thought of the hay barn 20 years later I can rest easy knowing that I’ve never unleashed a highly invasive, environmentally cataclysmic exotic species into a pristine environment with the intent of altering America’s greatest wetland.