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Invasive plants endanger sea turtles, hurt SC sand dunes

beach-vitex.jpg
David J. Stang
/
Wikimedia Commons
Beach vitex, Vitex rotundifolia L. f.

In late spring, beach vitex plants bloom gorgeous purple flowers that add a bright flash of color to beaches in the Carolinas.

Those blooms come at a major cost, however. Beach vitex, an invasive species from the Korean peninsula, hurts sand dunes and endangers sea turtle hatchlings by making it harder for them to making it out to the ocean.

It is strange to consider that beach vitex was intentionally brought to the Southeast in the 1980s to seed in sand dunes and help protect against hurricanes, Myrtle Beach State Park ranger Ann Wilson admits.

"I think as humans, we don't understand the impacts we can have. We're starting to understand a little bit more. But still, we always try something. We think, 'If we bring in one item, whether it's a plant or an insect, to help an issue that we're having, that will help,'" Wilson said. "But we don't always understand the implications and how it reacts to all the other plants and animals in that habitat."

Beach vitex was first brought to the Carolinas to help restore sand dunes after Hurricane Hugo, Wilson said. It didn't work as planned.

"It was overtaking some of the native plants, and also it wasn't trapping sand," thereby failing at its most important job, she said. "Then, sea turtles would get stuck in all the tangles of the little roots" as they tried to dig out after hatching.

Having realized the mistake decades later, environmentalists now face an ongoing battle to remove beach vitex from sand dunes across the Carolinas. On March 22, that's exactly what Wilson and dozens of volunteers from local Publix grocery stores were doing in Myrtle Beach State Park.

'PRICELESS' HABITATS

The area Wilson and the volunteers were working to help protect is one of the few remaining places in Horry County where there is no development at all.

"The beach we are standing right now is a priceless, priceless multi-million dollar habitat," Wilson told the group. "That's why it's also so important, just this little removal of beach vitex, to try to make sure that we can keep protecting this habitat."

The encroachment of development at Myrtle Beach State Park felt very real where Wilson stood as she made that statement. She was just feet away from a neighborhood full of million-dollar, beachfront homes.

"We're pretty lucky here. It's so vital here," she said, noting that in 1936 this was the first state park to open in South Carolina. "It's a special place."

Myrtle Beach State Park is also one of the only maritime forests in the state that is accessible to the public. There are two others nearby, but both of them require rarely-granted special permission to visit, Wilson said.

The Publix employees helping Wilson were there as part of Publix Serves Week, a multi-state operation where 6,000 employees of the grocery store chain were giving their time for volunteer work.

"It feels really good to know that we're making an impact to preserve our environment and our beaches and our sand dunes," said Publix community relations manager Kim Reynolds, who, alongside 40 other employees, helped with the beach cleanup. "The education that we've gotten today has been invaluable and eye-opening, and it really just speaks to the importance that we all have to do our part to preserve our dunes and protect our beaches."

FIGHTING BACK AGAINST BEACH VITEX

Undoing the mistakes of the past is intensive work. It wasn't until the late 2000s that the state really began focusing on removing beach vitex, Wilson said. By then, the problem was deeply ingrained.

Beach vitex is a particular challenge because of how well it spreads and how good it is at surviving. Its seeds, dark-blue berries, can survive for up to four years before needing to germinate. Those seeds also come in the thousands. Wilson said there can be 10,000-20,000 per square meter.

Removing beach vitex is a delicate process. The volunteers had to remove the berries from the plant first, so as to not scatter them around and make the problem worse after the plants were cut and removed. Some of the volunteers focused exclusively on scouring the sand for berries that had already fallen, a painstaking exercise.

"No matter how great we are, the volunteers are, we're going to miss some," Wilson said. "Then, we have to make sure we have the time to come back and keep staying on top of it. That can be the difficult thing."

Making removal harder, it's best not to just rip beach vitex out of the ground. That could damage the dunes or the other plants around them. Instead, they have to be trimmed and hit with what looks like a tiny amount of herbicide but is more than enough to kill the unruly species.

Beach vitex isn't the only invasive species Myrtle Beach State Park faces. "We have lost the battle with English ivy," Wilson said of the invasive species known for climbing, covering and killing trees. "And it pains me to say that."

Wilson still feels hope for protecting Myrtle Beach State Park's sand dunes. Despite knowing the park will never be rid of beach vitex, she said the battle is still worth fighting. So far, the state has been able to limit the spread of beach vitex to a few smaller areas in the state park.

As work finished up on the first round of beach clean-up, Wilson repeatedly showered praise on the volunteers, often noting that by herself or with just another park ranger or two, it would've taken 10 times as long. As they worked, she tried her best to impart her knowledge of the dunes and why it's so important to protect them.

"None of them knew anything about beach vitex," she said. "Now, we're going to have about 30 people that understand the horror of beach vitex, and then they can tell their friends. So sometimes, the grassroots effort really does work pretty well."