Dec 6, 2012

Is The Hawaiian Christmas Berry Toxic?

The Hawaiian Christmas Berry
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The "wilelaiki" blossom, which means "Christmasberry" in Hawaiian, was introduced to Hawaii from Brazil in 1911, according to a Bishop Museum website. The beautiful red berries from this invasive plant are pictured above, but looks may be deceiving

I was once told by a neighbor that the Brazilian pepper berry, when dried, is actually the same thing as the edible pink peppercorn, which is a culinary spice. After a little research, I found out that this may not be the case at all. According to this website, http://homecooking.about.com/od/spices/a/peppervarieties.htm, edible pink peppercorns come from the baies rose plant (Euonymus phellomanus), imported from Madagascar and are sold online by stores such as Williams-Sonoma. They said that the pink peppercorn from Madagascar is NOT to be confused with the pink peppercorn from the invasive Brazilian pepper berry (Schinus terebinthifolius) which grows in Hawaii. They also said that this berry causes allergic reactions in some people, particularly children, and can be toxic if eaten in large quantities, and are NOT recommended for consumption. 

Then I found a website that sells spices including edible pink peppercorns. They said that the Brazilian pepper plant is a closely related species to the Madagascar plant, and that these berries are also sold as pink peppercorns in some areas. As you can see, their is some confusion here.

The USDA listed the Brazilian pepper tree as a "Noxious Weed" on their website, and the University of Hawaii Botany Department website lists it as an "alien plant". Another site warns that like poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Brazilian pepper berries are a member of the Anacardiaceae family, a family of plants that includes poison ivy and poison oak. Contact with most parts of Brazilian pepper plant can cause an itchy skin rash and sometimes inflammation and swelling of the face and eyes. The flowers and fruits can cause respiratory irritation. Just trimming Brazilian pepper berry plant, especially when in bloom, can cause these allergic reactions in many people. Ingestion of the berries causes vomiting. 

The Brazilian pepper berry is also known as Florida holly, and is considered highly invasive in Florida and Hawaii. I also read, on this site, that the Brazilian pepper berry is toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, but not to birds, who love to eat the red berries and spread the seeds wherever they go. But that's not all... the plot thickens!

I then found that a Honolulu candy company, Madre Chocolate, is not only selling bags of the dried Brazilian pepper berries for consumption, but also sells chocolate bars filled with these berries mixed with smoked sea salt. This company even asks its patrons to "Eat the Enemy and help eat these invasive plants out of existence in a delicious way". One chocoholic fan of this chocolate product is sold on it, and shows photos of all of the Brazilian pepper berries in this chocolate bar on his website. 

I'm confused about the Brazilian pepper berry, is it toxic or not? If it is, then shouldn't the Food and Drug Administration make sure that these Brazilian pepper berries don't end up in our food, or at least make sure that the packaging posts a warning? People are cooking with these berries, making tea out of it, the bees are making honey out of the flowers on the Big Island, and now a company is putting them in chocolate bars. I guess the old saying "when in doubt, do without" would be my advice until someone figures this out.

Final Note: The Hawaiian island of Moloka'i, where I live, has thousands of these invasive trees growing everywhere. If you have these invasive Brazilian pepper berry trees growing in your yard, as I do, here is a website that tells you how to get rid of them: http://www.ehow.com/how_8082959_kill-christmas-berry-tree.html
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