Q: I planted a Brazilian pepper tree last spring. It seemed to be growing well most of the summer, but now it appears to be dying. I water it a couple of times a week, but it doesn’t respond. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Brazilian pepper trees are used extensively in Southern California landscape, and I have noticed many used in Valley street and park landscaping. Trees and shrubs that grow well in other climates don’t always thrive in our dry climate and alkaline desert soil, and often develop problems when we try to adapt them.
A combination of drought and the original soil mix that the trees are grown in seems to be a recurring problem with Brazilian pepper trees. Most of the trees sold in this area are grown in Southern California, where growers use a mix that is peat moss and vermiculite, which is hydrophobic — once the original root ball dries out it repels water and is extremely hard to rewet even though the ground around the root ball is saturated with water.
You can check for this problem by examining the soil in the area that was in the original container to see if it is dry. If it is, sprinkling or drip irrigation is unlikely to improve the situation. You may want to add Spreader-Sticker, a surfactant that you can get at most nurseries, to a 5-gallon bucket of water and slowly pour it at the base of the tree to rewet the root ball.
The Brazilian pepper tree is also susceptible to Texas root rot, often called cotton root rot, a result of overwatering. There is no cure for the fungus, you can only plant trees that are resistant to the fungus. Most native desert trees are.