In 2013 we began writing about a potential invasive plant in the Florida panhandle called Beach Vitex (Vitex rotundifolia). The first record we knew of was reported from Pensacola Beach and was posted on EDDmaps.org. According to this website only two other records had been found in Florida, both in the Jacksonville area. It did not seem like a real problem and was not listed as an invasive species in the state. But I decided to survey Pensacola Beach and see if the plant might be growing in other places – it was – in 22 other places!
Based on the severe problems they have had with this plant in coastal communities of North and South Carolina, and the fact that more records were coming in of the plant in northeast Florida, both the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council and the University of Florida / IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants listed the plant as “invasive – not recommended”.
So is the plant a problem?
In the Carolina’s it certainly is. Used in dune restoration projects it quickly became a monoculture and displaced many species of native dune plants – including sea oats. It grows aggressively in the summer months, crossing bike paths and driveways and can extend towards the water impeding sea turtle nesting. One fear is that the plant will grow fast enough that a turtle nest will become overwhelmed by the plant before the eggs hatch, in a sense entrapping them. The plant produces a large tap root and extends above ground stolon in all directions. I have measured stolon over 20 feet in length and many secondary roots extending from these. Stolon extending from nearby vitex can form an intermingle mess of vines that can be very difficult to remove.
Another issue is the taproot. Most are small and manageable but we have measured some 3-4” in diameter and one, on Pensacola Beach, was about 10” in diameter. Once they reach this size removing becomes very difficult, if not impossible. The key is to identify and remove the plant early. It has become such a problem in the Carolina’s that a state task force has been created to address it.
So where does this plant stand in the Florida Panhandle?
Since the initial survey conducted on Pensacola Beach the plant has been found on 21 properties on Pensacola Beach itself and 1 property on Perdido Bay (both in Escambia County). It has been verified at two locations within the Naval Live Oaks Reservation within Gulf Islands National Seashore in Santa Rosa County. A survey of Perdido Key in 2015 found no evidence of the plant – but the Key will be surveyed again in 2016. As for coastal counties to the east – we are not sure.
This maybe one invasive plant we may be able to manage before it gets too far out of control.
(If you live in a coastal county between Pensacola and Aucilla River, and believe you may have the plant, please contact your local Extension Office to let them know. We would like to log the occurrence on EDDmaps and can provide advice to the property owner on how to safely remove it).