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Beach vitex invades Virginia Beach dunes

Imported to stabilize sand dunes, beach vitex is an invasive species that's tough to kill, Virginia Beach officials have found.

Waller Whittemore, left, and Cheryl Petticrew, walk by beach vitex, an invasive plant growing near a sand dune in Virginia Beach.

Hyunsoo Leo Kim/The Virginian-Pilot/AP

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It's tough, kind of pretty, and poised to wreak havoc, say environmental officials who have discovered for the first time in Virginia Beach a fast-growing Asian plant that thrives on dunes and crowds out native species.

The plant, called beach vitex, wasn't spread by birds or the wind. People planted it in Sandbridge to stabilize dunes and add greenery to barren beach yards.

Now, officials are scrambling to combat what they've derisively dubbed "coastal kudzu" before it spreads, especially into the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Some Sandbridge residents have joined the fight. Other people say they like the plant because it's one of the few things that will grow in the sandy soil.

The green-leafed woody shrub with small purple flowers and pea-sized seeds has been found in 30 to 40 places, mostly in the front yards of homes, said Cheryl Petticrew, a resident working to get rid of it. The plant's long runners, which can grow 10 feet a year, are creeping over dunes toward the beach.

"If we leave it unchecked it could be down where people put their towels in a couple of years," Ms. Petticrew said.

Beach vitex was imported as a beach stabilization plant from Korea in 1985. It is now illegal in North and South Carolina, where the dense plant can overtake dunes and block newly hatched sea turtles from getting to the ocean. It quickly dominates dunes, even secreting a waxy substance that blocks water from seeping through the sand to other plants.

"This plant is very aggressive and the sooner you get on it the better," said Betsy Brabson, who heads the South Carolina Beach Vitex Task Force. "We've learned that you can't turn your back on it."

Norfolk is having some success killing it with herbicide, but it's been tougher than expected, said Lee Rosenberg, Norfolk's environmental manager who heads a local beach vitex task force.


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