What could possibly be wrong with a tree that looks attractive, is simple to grow, tolerates just about any soil, accepts salt spray, and suffers no serious pests or diseases? In the case of paperbark tree, just about everything.
Imported from Australia (and also known as cajeput tree), it quickly found favor among south Florida gardeners as an interesting choice for a lawn, shade, or street tree. Then intrepid land speculators decided to spread seeds of the thirsty tree throughout the south Florida swamplands to help drain them. Seedlings, which will grow on dry land or with their roots submerged, quickly invaded the wetlands to form impenetrable stands, virtually eliminating native vegetation. Hundreds of thousands of acres of the Florida Everglades have fallen victim.
Trees can reach 5080 feet tall and 3050 feet wide, with pendulous young branches. Thick, spongy, light brown to whitish bark peels off in sheets. Stiff, narrowly oval, shiny pale green leaves reach 24 inches long; spikes of yellowish white flowers resembling bottlebrushes crowd branch tips in summer and fall. Cylindrical or squarish, woody seed capsules contain many seeds.
Although paperbark tree can be a fine ornamental in the appro- priate setting, its devastating impact on native ecosystems marks it as a tree that should never be planted. In fact, the state of Florida legally prohibits planting, growing, and selling it. It is included in this book as a warning, not a recommendation.
There is, however, one good, safe use for paperbark tree cut and ground up, it makes an attractive, long-lasting, commercially available mulch that is a fine substitute for cypress mulch. Using this mulch helps reduce the cutting of cypresses, which are a vital component of many swampland ecosystems.