The Stoppers (Myrtaceae)

This week we take a look at a very interesting group of Florida native plants known collectively as stoppers.  All stoppers are members of the Myrtaceae, an enormous family that also includes the genus Eucalyptus.  Some grow as shrubs and some as trees.  Each of the five described below not only has ornamental value, but also has proven to be pretty irresistible to wildlife.

The Redberry Stopper (Eugenia confusa) is a rare, very slow-growing small to medium-sized tree that seldom reaches much more than 25 ft.  In Florida, it occurs in Martin, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties.  In the islands, it is native to the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, including Puerto Rico, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Trinidad.  The crown is fairly narrow and bears small, stiff, glossy evergreen leaves about 1-2 in. long with pointed tips.  The tree produces clusters of white flowers year-round, but more heavily during spring and summer.  Not surprisingly, the fruit is a red berry, and it attracts birds.  The tree also provides food and cover to other wildlife.

E. confusa prefers most, well-drained soils, whether limestone or sand, but can tolerate brief periods of drought once established.  While not demanding of rich soils where native, this species responds well to good nutrition in cultivation.  Although the tree is found in coastal hammocks, it will not tolerate constant exposure to salt breeze or long-lasting inundation by salty or brackish water.  This species should be grown in full sun to light shade.

The Redberry Stopper is considered by the State of Florida to be endangered.

Red Stopper (Eugenia rhombea), like the Redberry Stopper, has a narrow, rounded crown, but is of a smaller stature, generally maturing in the 8-12 ft. range, but occasionally reaching 15 ft.  This species works well in buffer plantings or as a stand-alone small tree or accent shrub.  Leaves of the Red Stopper are dark green and 1-2 in. long.  The ‘red’ in the common name refers to the color of new foliage.

Historically, E. rhombea ranges from Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties in Florida into Mexico, Central America and northern South America.  However, it is no longer found natively in mainland Miami-Dade County and only rarely encountered in Monroe County.  The Institute for Regional Conservation considers the species critically imperiled in southern Florida.

Red Stopper bears white flowers year-round, peaking during the hot months.  The fruit of this species is orange-black, maturing to black, and is eaten by birds.  The plant also provides food and cover to other wildlife.  Soil, water and nutritional needs, as well as salt tolerance, match those of E. confusa.  E. rhombea is best grown in light shade.

The White Stopper (Eugenia axillaris), perhaps because of its large range, is fortunately still common in the wild.  It is  found natively from Volusia and Levy Counties, far upstate, skipping northeast to Bermuda, extending south through the Florida Keys and into the West Indies, Mexico and Central America.  Maturing to 8-15 ft. in the northerly end of its range, but 25+ ft. in southern Florida, it has long been popular for ornamental use as a large shrub or small tree.

New leaves of E. axillaris are a pinkish-red color before maturing to a dull, dark green on the upper surface and pale on the lower surface, with many tiny black dots.  Some observers say that the leaves emit an unpleasant odor, while others do not.  This species produces white flowers all year long, but most heavily during the spring and summer; they are followed by reddish or black fruit that provides a significant food source for wildlife.

This species is probably more demanding of good nutrition than the other stoppers.  Like them, however, it should not regularly be exposed to salt breezes or salty or brackish water.  It can tolerate short periods of drought once established.  The White Stopper is best grown in full sun to light shade.

Simpson’s Stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans) commemorates Charles Torrey Simpson, botanist, conservationist and Sage of Biscayne Bay, for whom Simpson Park just south of downtown Miami is also named.  Its species name refers to the sweet aroma of the flowers, but the leaves also produce an aromatic smell when crushed.  This stopper grows as a large shrub or small to medium-sized tree with reddish peeling bark.  It usually matures in the 10-20 ft. range, but 50 ft. is not unheard of in southern Florida.  The growth rate is slow to moderate.

M. fragrans is native from Lee, Okeechobee and St. Johns Counties southward through the Keys and into the West Indies, Mexico, Central America and South America.  Leaves are 1-2 1/2 in. long and semi-glossy on the upper surface.  Dots on the leaf surfaces contain the aromatic substances which are released when the leaves are crushed.  Simpson’s Stopper produces clusters of white flowers year-round, but most heavily during the spring and summer.  The flowers are followed by orange to red globose berries that provide a food source to a variety of wildlife.

This species is native to moist, well-drained limestone or sandy soils.  Like the other stoppers, it does not like long exposures to salt air or salty or brackish water.  Drought tolerance is moderate once a plant is established in a new site.  For best results, grow Simpson’s Stopper in full sun to light shade.

The State of Florida lists this species as threated.

Spanish Stopper (Eugenia foetida) differs from the species discussed above in that it regularly produces multiple thin, erect stems.  The bark of those reddish-brown stems is smooth when young, then develops concentric rings as it ages.  Atop the stems is a dense, rounded crown bearing leathery leaves 3/4 to 1 1/2 in. long.  The species name is derived from the fact that crushed leaves may emit an unpleasant scent.  As a tall shrub or small to medium-size tree, E. foetida generally matures to 8-15 ft.  It makes an excellent buffer or accent planting.

Spanish Stopper ranges from Brevard and Manatee Counties down along the east coast of Florida through the Keys and into the West Indies, Mexico and Central America.  Fortunately, it is still fairly common throughout its range.

Like E. axillaris, the Spanish Stopper is more demanding nutritionally than most stoppers.  However, its soil and water requirements are similar to those of the other species reviewed here.  While its saltwater tolerance is low, it can endure salt breezes remarkably well.  The growth rate of this species is slow to moderate.

This species produces clusters of white flowers throughout the year, but particularly during the summer.  They are followed by brown to black berries which attract a variety of animals.  Spanish Stopper also provides a significant source of cover for wildlife.

In summary, all five of the Florida stoppers make wonderful additions to the residential landscape, and as slow to moderate growers, they will never become out of scale to even the smallest of yards.  They are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3 gal. containers.

By the way, were you wondering why these species are called stoppers?  Stories have come and gone over the years, but the most accurate appears to be that tribes made a tea out of the leaves of these species, particularly White Stopper, to stop diarrhea.  Suffice it to say that nowadays you probably just want to concentrate on the ornamental appeal of these plants.

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