Is beach Vitex a beauty or a beast? Isn’t this an invasive species? Isn’t this the dreaded “Kudzu of the beach” now threatening the Carolina dunes? Isn’t this the focus of all kinds of eradication campaigns? Why would any serious horticulturist even talk about a plant like this, much less write about it? Well, we’d just like to quietly point out that there are many areas of the southern USA where it’s quite common in landscapes – and it’s simply just another interesting non-invasive exotic plant. That’s the case in our region of Texas. It’s no thug here.
With over thirty years of experience with this hardy evergreen species in the USA – it’s an immigrant from Hawaii, believe it or not – we can now say there are many parts of the South where beach Vitex is rather tame. This is a species grown in fairly large numbers from a wide range of wholesale nurseries in Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana. Considering the fact that this is one tough immigrant from Hawaii, and the fact it’s easy to keep alive, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it appears here to stay. Given a little positive horticulture, the plant can be downright beautiful, and it’s in that vein the plant can be used. First, let’s give testimony and respect to the species as a landscape candidate, without discounting its invasive potential in areas where it finds itself too much at home. Writing this piece conjures up memories – thirty years ago – of some officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department visiting J.C. Raulston, Director of the North Carolina State University Arboretum, and suggesting to him that promoting, growing, thinking about or touching this plant was just about the most horrible thing a horticulturist could do.
Yes, this plant is easy to grow. In coastal sandy spots, it can go where you don’t want it to, and when it’s there it can and will smother native vegetation. It can be a bad boy. So here’s the rule: In those sections of the country that beach Vitex is way too frisky for its own good, don’t plant it, and, when you see it, kill it. In our Zone 8 region of Texas, we have never seen a seedling and if landscapers used the plant as described in this treatise, well, the end result is no problem. As a groundcover in our region, beach Vitex is not that voracious. At the San Antonio Botanical Garden in Texas (a bit warmer than Nacogdoches, Texas in the winter and summer), Paul Cox reported that it’s “manageable”. Knowing Paul Cox, that might not be too good. At any rate, experience is a good teacher.
First, how bad is this plant? Well, it is a native of the USA, but only because it comes from Hawaii. First introduced as an exciting groundcover over 30 years ago as a potential groundcover for sunny dry spots, this introduction made its way to the sand dunes of South Carolina, and it’s there that beach Vitex has come to be quite frightening. This brief note isn’t intended to stir up a fight in the horticultural crowd. The invasive exotic issue is real and one that deserves respect and attention. We know that. However, an invasive in one spot can be quite docile in another and it’s in that vein this article is presented.
If you happen to live in a region of the USA where beach Vitex never throws seedlings – and where it’s easily managed in a run – the plant does have attributes. We have long enjoyed it as a vine in our “line of vines” collection. The foliage is beautiful, clean and fully evergreen. The blooms are relatively inconspicuous coming in the fall as blue spikes. While attractive up close, they are never overwhelming. Our most conspicuous specimen in the Mast Arboretum “line of vines” has been trained to a post and never fails to gain approval by visitors. We’ve used the plant as a vine and as a groundcover and found that it responds to an occasional shearing. Once again, let me repeat, we’ve never seen a seedling in our Zone 8 garden (not that we won’t find one tomorrow!) – and in our garden it’s not that vigorous, nor does it generate much fear and loathing. That said, tread with trepidation.