WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The tough, towering grass that tormented Jesus' darkest hours, helped Benny Goodman make music and devoured large parts of California is set for a big foothold in Florida.
An entrepreneur from the Panhandle city of Gulf Breeze says he intends to start planting 8,000 acres of the bamboo-like grass, known as giant reed, somewhere northwest of Lake Okeechobee by the end of the year. Swiftly reaching heights exceeding 20 feet, the grass would become fuel for a power plant supplying electricity to Jacksonville.
Unless the state heeds some ecologists' calls to prevent it.
In a classic case of green vs. green, the reed project has stirred passions on both sides: Supporters tout the promise of clean, renewable energy, while opponents warn that the last thing Florida needs is another foreign weed to spread across the landscape.
"It's the ideal energy crop," said Allen Sharpe, chief executive officer of the Biomass Investment Group, which promotes the reed under the name "e-grass." "You can sit there and talk about what an environmentalist you are -- are you doing anything about it?"
But Miami-based ecologist Robert Doren calls the reed another biological disaster in the making -- much like the well-meaning efforts that imported such noxious plant pests as melaleucas and Brazilian peppers.
"If you bring it in, it will get out," said Doren, co-chairman of a state-federal panel called the Noxious Exotic Weed Task Team. "You just can't stop it. That's the way nature is."
The reed already exists in scattered, slow-growing patches across Florida, but not in a swath as big as Sharpe is proposing.
Opponents fear a repeat of what the reed has wrought in California, where scientists blame the thirsty, thick-clumping plant for depleting water, wiping out native habitat, spreading fires and worsening floods that wash away bridges. Weed managers there spend millions of dollars a year fighting the reed -- and they're aghast that Florida would consider allowing such a big planting.
"We're just totally appalled," said Nelroy Jackson, vice chairman of the federal Invasive Species Advisory Committee. In an e-mail to Florida farming regulators last month, he said Sharpe's project "sent a chill down my spine."
Sharpe counters that his company will take steps to keep the reed from spreading, and will offer financial guarantees. He argues the reed has shown no sign of spreading in Florida and would be easy to eradicate if it does.
"Don't ask somebody in California how it's going to grow" here, Sharpe said.
Some in Florida say they just want to know more.
"We just don't want to do something we're going to regret," said Richard Gaskalla, director of the state Division of Plant Industry, which is considering whether it should require a permit for the project. "We're going to take a hard look at it."
For now, planting of the reed is unregulated in Florida, where its population includes a large stand in Cape Canaveral and a sprinkling near Florida's Turnpike west of Lake Worth. Disney planted some as decoration at Animal Kingdom.
Despite its dark ecological reputation, the reed has played notable roles in civilization for at least 5,000 years. Early musicians used the reed's hollow stalks for flutes and panpipes. It's still a major source of reeds for woodwinds such as clarinets, oboes and saxophones.
The reed also turns up in the Bible: Passages in the Gospel describe Roman soldiers beating Jesus with a reed just before his crucifixion. Later, someone used a reed to hoist a vinegar-soaked sponge for him to drink.
Supporters say the plant would be an excellent fuel source -- for many of the same reasons that critics call it a threat.
Since it's not native to North America, it has no natural predators and doesn't require pesticides, Sharpe said. And the reed grows swiftly, to 15 feet to 20 feet tall in about four months.
Sharpe said he's still undecided on the project's location, although he is considering DeSoto or Highlands counties.
Robert P. King writes for The Palm Beach Post