Invasive exotic species are a common problem in our natural areas, local parks, and even our own backyards. They are officially defined as “...alien (non-native) species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health” (National Invasive Species Council).

Because they tend to grow quickly and out-compete native species, these species can cause significant losses in native populations, alter plant or animal communities, and disrupt the larger food web.

Removing invasive exotic plants is part of the protection and restoration work we do at SBEP. The Sarasota Bay watershed is highly developed, which means it’s important to make sure the natural landscapes we do have remain healthy.

What’s the Difference Between Invasive and Exotic?

Invasive species can cause harm to native plant or animal populations, the economy, or human health because they grow and spread rapidly. Invasive plants are usually non-native, but sometimes native plants can have invasive tendencies.

Exotic species are non-native, but do not necessarily harm native habitats. For example, the bird of paradise plants you may see around Sarasota are exotic, but not invasive, because they do not tend to spread beyond where they are planted.

Photo: Bird of Paradise Flower, Thierry Fillieul

Closeup Photography Of Bird Of Paradise Flower Credit Thierry Fillieul

Do All Invasive Species Cause the Same Harm?

Nope! According to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC), there are different categories for invasive species that help differentiate those that are causing trouble:

  • Category I species are the troublemakers that are changing native plant communities.
    • Examples: air potato, melaleuca, sewer vine, Brazilian pepper, beach naupaka, caesarweed
  • Category II species are becoming more abundant but have not changed native plant communities. However, if they do start to affect native plants, they can be moved to a category I status.
    • Examples: balsam-apple, coconut palm

FUN FACT: Although coconut palms (category II invasive) are found all over the world, researchers have traced their origins back to only two groups - those from the coasts of India and those from Southeast Asia. Trees with longer coconuts originated from India, and those with rounder coconuts originated from the Southeast Asia area.

Coconut Trees

Common Invasive Species at SBEP Volunteer Events

If you're planning to head to one of our volunteer events or just looking to do some restoration in your yard, here are some invasive species frequently seen around Sarasota and Manatee counties:

Brazilian Pepper-Tree

Scientific Name: Schinus terebinthifolius

Features: Long, oval leaves with toothed edges, white flowers from September through November, and red berries usually in December.

Location: Brazilian Pepper trees tend to invade disturbed habitats and can be found in wet or dry areas. They are common along tidal creek shorelines, mangroves, and in urban areas.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Quick Point Preserve, Bowlees Creek

Air Potato

Scientific Name: Dioscorea bulbifera

Features: vine, heart shaped leaves with veins that stem from the center base, root tubers look like a potatoes.

Location: Air potato is a fast growing vine that climbs trees, buildings, fences and displaces native species. It is commonly found in urban parks and on residential properties.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Arlington Park, North Water Tower Park, Phillippi Estate Park, Red Bug Slough

Caesar Weed

Scientific Name: Urena lobata

Features: single stalked shrub that can grow up to 10ft tall, leaves have lobes that spread out like fingers on a hand, flowers are pinkish-purple.

Location: Caesar weed grows in previously disturbed areas.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Arlington Park, North Water Tower Park, Phillippi Estate Park, Red Bug Slough

FUN FACT: Caesar weed is in the same family as cotton and was originally imported to make fiber for cords and rope. Its leaves, flowers, and roots can be used for medicinal purposes.

Beach Naupaka

Scientific Name: Scaevola taccada

Features: shrub with long, oval leaves, the plant tends to grow in a spherical shape, flowers are white or pale purple, fruit is white when ripe.

Location: Beach naupaka tends to grow in sandy soil, on beach-side properties, and dunes.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Ted Sperling Park/South Lido Beach, Palmer Point Park, Quick Point Preserve

NOTE: Beach Naupaka (below on right) looks very similar to a Florida native, endangered plant called inkberry (left). However, inkberry fruits are black/purple, and its leaves are smaller. Make sure to check that you're taking out the exotic, not the native!

Beach Naupaka And Ink Berry

Australian Pine

Scientific Name: Casuarina species

Features: Pine tree that can grow up to 150ft tall with needle-like branches and reddish-brown, peeling trunk.

Location: Australian pines can be found everywhere - near beaches, in residential areas, and local parks.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Ted Sperling Park, South Lido County Park, North Lido Beach

FUN FACT: Many of the trees that used to line the Ringling Causeway on the way to St. Armand's Circle were Australian pines. They are not hurricane resistant and can pose a danger to evacuation routes. The City of Sarasota and FDOT recently removed 223 Australian pines from the causeway and will replace them with native plants.


Scientific Name: Cupaniopsis anacardioides

Features: tree with long, oval leaves, white to greenish-yellow flowers, and yellowish small, round fruits. It blooms in the Spring and Summer.

Location: Carrotwood tends to live at disturbed sites, residential areas, coastal areas, mangroves, marshes, and pinelands.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Quick Point Preserve, Red Bug Slough

Arrowhead Vine

Scientific Name: Syngonium podophyllum

Features: thick-stemmed, climbing vine with arrowhead-shaped leaves on seedlings, older plants have leaflets with larger leaves in the center. Flowers are green to whiteish and form a column encircled by what looks like a "leaf", similar to lily flowers. Produces red berries.

Location: Arrowhead vine tends to climb trees and can grow in shady areas. It is a common houseplant that can be found in parks and residential areas where it escapes from yards. (So if you have it as a houseplant, make sure to keep an eye on it!)

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Pinecraft Park, Phillippi Estate Park, Arlington Park

9. Japanese and Old World Climbing Ferns

Scientific Names: Lygodium japonicum (Japanese) and Lygodium microphyllum (Old World)

Features: Both ferns can grow up to 90ft, Japanese fern has triangular leaves and finger-like fronds and green, orange, or black vines. Old World fern has oblong and finger-like leaves that may not be as triangular.

Location: Japanese climbing fern usually invades disturbed areas, but it can grow in sunny or shady damp areas, in residential areas, along roadsides, on the edges of lakes and creeks, and in woodlands.

10. Sewer Vine

Scientific Name: Paederia cruddasiana

Features: woody, climbing vine, leaves on either side grow directly opposite of each other and exude a smell when crushed. Flowers are gray/whiteish pink with purple centers.

Location: Sewer vine tends to invade disturbed areas, hardwood forests, and residential areas.

Balsam Apple

Scientific Name: Momordica charantia

Features: Vine with broad leaves, yellow flowers and orange fruits that have bright red seeds. Also called the stink vine, this plant tends to have a very noticeable smell.

Location: Balsam apple tends to inhabit recently disturbed areas, residential areas, pinelands, coastal habitats, and wetland areas.

Found at SBEP Volunteer Sites: Quick Point Preserve, Bowlees Creek

Report Invasive Species

Suncoast Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA) - collaborative with members from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota working to "eliminate or reduce invasive, non-native plants and animals across public and private boundaries."

EDD MapS: Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System - "combines data from other databases and organizations as well as volunteer observations to create a national network of invasive species distribution data that is shared with educators, land managers, conservation biologists."

IveGot1 App - "species reporting that captures your current location and allows you to submit an image of your sightings."

Learn More about Invasive Species

Florida Invasive Plant Species Mobile Field Guide
UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
FL Exotic Pest Plant Council Invasive Species Lists