See carrotwood in full fruit on an early June afternoon and it’s not hard to imagine why it became a landscaping favorite not long after its introduction into the Sunshine State nearly seven decades ago.
The golden fruit forms in large clusters, and seen against the background of a bright blue sky, carrotwood is absolutely beautiful. To top it off, it's totally undemanding, an easy-to-care-for addition to any landscape.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of that same fruit makes carrotwood a Category 1 invasive and earns it a place on Florida’s noxious weed list, its sale prohibited by law.
Known scientifically as Cupaniopsis anacardioide, carrotwood is a native of New Guinea, Indonesia and the north and east coasts of Australia. It was imported into Florida during the 1950s as a landscaping tree, brought here because of its good looks. University of Florida scientists first documented it growing in the wild along Florida’s east coast in 1955, a decade later growing along the Gulf in Sarasota.
Carrotwood continued to grow in popularity into the 1960s and 1970s; homeowner interest in the tree surged after the damage Hurricane Andrew wrought on local greenery in 1992, particularly in Miami-Dade County and to an extent in Broward and Palm Beach. But there are those pesky seeds, plus carrotwood’s ability to thrive seemingly in any habitat Florida has to offer save open water: mangrove swamps, cypress swamps, marshes, beach dunes, coastal scrubs, hammocks, flatwoods and more. Not only does carrotwood thrive, it takes over swaths of land, crowding out natives.
The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, now known as the Florida Invasive Species Council, listed carrotwood as an invasive species in 1993. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services added carrotwood to the state’s noxious weed list in 1999. Some local governments, including Palm Beach County, also ban carrotwood, forcing landowners to remove it under certain circumstances.
Carrotwood gets its name, logically enough, from its carrot-orange colored wood. The outer bark of the tree is gray, but if it is cut or scraped, the orange becomes apparent (see the top left photo below).
It is not a particularly tall tree or fast grower; it can reach 30 feet or more, climbing a foot or two a year. Leaves are alternate along the stem and compound, with between four and 12 leaflets and a pair of leaflets at the end. They are undulant (wavy), dark, glossy green above and leathery to the touch, sort of squared off and with a slit indentation at the tip.
Carrotwood flowers are small, white to greenish yellow, inconspicuous even as they appear in long, large clusters (see the photo, bottom center). It blooms January to March, the fruit — yellow-orange woody capsules — appearing also in large clusters later in spring and into summer. The capsules are divided by ridges into three distinct segments. When fully ripe, they open up, exposing three shiny black seeds and red aril — a fleshy part of the outer seed.
Birds eat the fruit and are a major vector for the spread of carrotwood seed. Fish crows are a particular problem, because they will eat the fruit on the mainland and deposit it on coastal islands.
Carrotwood is one tough plant, another reason why it was once so desirable and why it is such a problem. It’s as if mother nature can’t kill it. It tolerates heat, it tolerates cold — it’s been known to survive temperatures as low as 22 degree F. It will grow in full sun, it will grow in full shade. It will withstand drought, floods, salt water intrusion and grow in poor soil.
Carrotwood is used as a landscape tree in California, but hasn’t naturalized there to any extent. The theory is the Cali climate is too dry for it to gain a foothold in the wild there.
Carrotwood is also known as tuckeroo and carrot weed. It is a member of Sapindaceae, the soapberry family.
One last note: A shout-out to one of my Master Naturalist instructors, Chris Lockhart, whose extensive research into carrotwood, along with that of her Florida Atlantic University colleagues, is reflected in many of the sources we used to write this page.
Link for Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Other photos taken at the Leon M. Weekes Environmental Preserve in Delray Beach.