Miami's beloved shrub is a Zika breeding ground

FLORIDA (USA TODAY) - The battle of the bromeliads is underway in South Florida.

As the region tries to contain the Zika virus, government officials have taken particular aim at the plants that are popular for their vibrant colors but can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Their hard leaves grow in tight, cylindrical formations, which allows water to pool inside and provide a perfect mosquito incubator.

Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach have ordered bromeliads removed from all government property and are encouraging residents to do the same in their homes and businesses. The city of Miami has removed hundreds of plants along the central US-1 corridor. Those who fight mosquitoes every day have applauded those decisions to eliminate the plants that serve as incubators for mosquitoes that spread Zika.

"They're our arch-nemesis," said Yoel Gutierrez, co-owner of Mosquito Joe of South Miami, which has seen its workload triple since Zika began spreading locally in July. "You can walk up to any bromeliad and be about 99% sure that there’s going to be mosquito larvae in there."

But some in South Florida feel the bromeliad is being unfairly targeted.

Leo Castro, a nursery owner in the Redlands agricultural area south of Miami, said he has 100,000 bromeliads in his nursery but doesn't have mosquito problems because he regularly flushes the water from the plants to make sure mosquito larvae don't have time to grow. He said he's lost big contracts recently - from government buildings to commercial complexes to hospitals - that have heeded government warnings and decided to rip out their bromeliads.

Castro, who owns Country Garden Bromeliads, said that's unfair to the plants - and his business - considering that South Florida was built on a swamp and has dozens of other trees and plants that pool water.

"The bromeliads are getting a bad rap," he said. "Even if you got rid of every single bromeliad in South Florida, the mosquitoes wouldn't go away."

Sandy Shapiro is so concerned about the plight of the bromeliad that she's hosting a community forum next week to talk about the impact Zika is having on the region's horticultural industry. Shapiro is the executive director of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, which was closed down for a week after Florida health officials captured mosquitoes with the Zika virus in the garden.

Shapiro said her staff has been closely monitoring the garden's 2,000 bromeliads since Zika was first detected in South Florida. She said they followed the standard protocol for the plants - flushing the water regularly to remove mosquito larvae, spraying the plants with non-chemical larvicides and trimming dying leaves.

Despite those efforts, she said Miami Beach officials came in and removed all the plants, filling three dump trucks.

"Public health is the most important thing," she said. "But...that was a regrettably extreme measure. It has ripple effects, and we don't realize how it spills over into the broader community."

Stephanie Severino, a Miami-Dade County spokeswoman, said that explains why the country hasn't tried to take additional steps to force residents to remove bromeliads from their properties and are instead only requesting that they remove them. Or, at the very least, keep a close eye on them.

"If you have them, make sure you take care of them," she said.

To date, more than 600 people, including more than 80 pregnant women, have tested positive for the Zika virus in Florida - all contracting the virus while traveling abroad. The state Department of Health says 56 people contracted the virus locally. Miami-Dade County began aerial mosquito spraying last week and will continue through the month to lower the mosquito population on Miami Beach.


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