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An Unwanted Invasive Plant; Beach Vitex

This week’s article is a bit different… it is about nature we hope you DO NOT see – but hope you let us know if you do. Most of you know that Florida, along with many other states, continually battle invasive species. From Burmese pythons, to lionfish, to monitor lizards, we have problems with them all. Many of our invasive species are plants, which grow aggressively and take over habitats. They have few, if any, predators to control their populations and can cause environmental or economic problems for us.

The lavender blossom and ovate leaves of beach vitex.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The best way to tackle an invasive species is to detect it when it first arrives and remove it as quickly as possible – this provides you the best chance of actually eradicating it from an area at the lowest cost. One such invasive plant that has recently invaded Escambia and Santa Rosa county beaches is Beach Vitex (Vitex rotundifolia).

 

Beach vitex is a vine that grows along the surface of sandy areas, like dunes. It has a main taproot from which the runners (stolons) extend in a radiating pattern, like a skinny-legged starfish. The stolons will develop secondary roots, which can form smaller deep root systems, and the entire maze of vines grows very quickly in the summer. The leaves are ovate, more round than elongated, and have a grayish-blue-green color to them – they tend to stand out from other plants. The plant can grow vertically to about three feet, giving it a bush appearance.

 

Another key characteristic for identification are the lavender flowers it produces, few other plants in our dunes do – so this is a good thing to look for. The flowers appear in late spring and summer. They are actually quite pretty. In the fall, the flowers are replaced by numerous large seeds, which form in clusters where the flowers were. These seeds are problematic in that they can remain viable for up to six months if they fall into the water – increasing their chance for dispersal.

The radiating runners of beach vitex expanding over a sand dune on Pensacola Beach.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

So what is the problem?

In the Carolina’s this species was planted intentionally. They quickly learned of its aggressive nature and have had a state task force to battle it. The plant is allopathic – it can release toxins that kill neighboring plants allowing them to move into that space – this includes sea oats. Beach vitex has a taproot system, unlike the fibrous one of the sea oat, and cannot stabilize a dune as well – which is a problem during storms. In the Carolina’s there are numerous beach fronts where this is the only plant growing, a problem waiting to happen. Though there are no reports of it happening, it also has the potential to affect sea turtle nesting.

A patch of beach vitex is overtaking this beach on Perdido Bay.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

So what do I do if I see it?

Contact us… You can contact me at roc1@ufl.edu, or call (850) 475-5230. Try to give us the best description of where the location is as you can. Many phones now come with an app that has a compass. This app also gives you your latitude and longitude. If your phone does not have this, again, give us the best description of the location you can. If you can include a photograph, that would be great. There are numerous other invasive species roaming our area, and you are welcome to report any you find to us. We hope to stay on top of these early arrivals and keep them under control.