A TSA leaf beetle on a leaf

By Tom Nordlie, photos by Rob Annis and UF/IFAS staff

Tropical soda apple is a prickly shrub native to South America.

This plant has long thorns on its stems and leaves to protect it from being eaten. Not surprisingly, grazing animals avoid it because of the thorns.

The scientific name for tropical soda apple is Solanum viarum.

Until 1988, tropical soda apple had not been reported in the continental United States. That year, one patch was found in Glades County, Florida, west of Lake Okeechobee.

By 1996, tropical soda apple had infested about 1 million acres in South and Central Florida, mostly in sunny, open spaces such as pastures, parks and natural areas.

Initially, TSA was managed with mowing and application of herbicides. The cost of these measures plus economic losses eventually totaled $15 million annually.

Meanwhile, UF/IFAS entomologists had discovered a beetle in Paraguay and northern Argentina that feeds on tropical soda apple leaf tissue and nothing else. The entomologists called it the tropical soda apple leaf beetle.

After studies confirmed that the beetle would not threaten native plants, the U.S. government approved its release in Florida.

From 2003 to 2011, personnel with UF/IFAS, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helped raise 250,000 of the beetles and distribute them for interested landowners.

Today, the tropical soda apple leaf beetle is well-established in South and Central Florida and tropical soda apple is no longer out of control.

Scientists hope to find cold-tolerant strains of the beetle that can survive winters in North Florida and in other states where tropical soda apple continues to be a problem.

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