- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A seemingly harmless plant brought to South Carolina’s coast in the 1990s to help control erosion has turned mean, overtaking dunes, squeezing out other plants and garnering a notorious nickname: beach kudzu.

“At first it was doing a good job. Then we started noticing it was choking out the native plants,” said Betsy Brabson, who has watched the plant take over sea oats and beach grass around her home near the pristine, undeveloped coast in Georgetown County.

Originally planted on Debordieu Beach in the early 1990s after Hurricane Hugo damaged the dunes in 1989, beach vitex spreads by seeds that are washed in the tides. Although the heaviest stretches grow along the central South Carolina coast, it has also plagued parts of Alabama’s coast and North Carolina’s Figure Eight Island.

Mrs. Brabson, who heads the South Carolina Beach Vitex Task Force, said if nothing is done to control the plant, picturesque beach dunes could become bushy eyesores.

“When vitex is compared to kudzu, everybody knows the rest of the story,” she said.

Few scientific studies have been done in the United States on vitex, which is from the Pacific Rim. But anecdotal evidence shows similarities to kudzu, a plant from Japan that farmers began using in the 1930s to prevent soil erosion.

Every Southerner knows how that story ends — just drive along the highways and witness the monstrous vines covering trees, road signs and billboards.

Vitex, too, was thought to be a colorful way to control beach erosion when brought to the United States in 1985, but it’s unclear whether it’s even good for that.

“It will trap sand because of the aboveground foliage, but it will not hold sand,” said Randy Westbrooks of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Clemson University researchers are looking into the plant’s effect on dune stability, and they have also started herbicide testing at a private residence to see what, if anything, can control the vines.

Vitex, like kudzu, has fragrant, violet-colored flowers. The leaves are 1-2 inches long, and the small, round fruit appears purple to black.

The seeds are spread by waves that break off small parts of the fruit-laden runners, taking them down the coast, where they root easily.

With its long, winding runners that slide across and hug the sand, beach vitex roots about every 21/2 inches. The roots shoot down as much as 6 feet and overtake the plants.

“Beach vitex doesn’t want any competition,” Mrs. Brabson said.

She also is worried about the effect on sea turtle nesting and has heard that the turtles are crawling to the dunes, bumping into the vitex and returning to the water without laying any eggs.

“As I walk down the beach and I see what these dunes look like that are covered with this, I just envision 10, 20 years from now the whole dune system looking like that, and that would be such a loss for this state,” she said.

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