I have heard about Kudzu all my life. Growing up in rural North Carolina, everyone was taught to hate the stuff. We were told that it would eventually eat up all the forests and starve them of light until there was nothing left.
And, it made sense. I lived right next to the Pisgah National Forest and from what I could see, the stuff was taking over. The stands of trees became what looked like dark green billowing hills, only these were in the air. The properties near the forests were encroached on by the slender tendrils that seemed to be looking for their next victim. Kudzu was definitely something we all hated.
But were its ill effects all hype? Is it really growing out of control? Just taking a drive through the forests that I grew up in, it does not look like the plant really did much. Sure it is still around, but so are the forests. So what’s up with Kudzu?
First, What is Kudzu and Where did it Come from?
Southerners (of the US) know intimately what Kudzu is, but for those of you who are unfamiliar: kudzu is a perennial (doesn't die after a year) vine that is in the pea family. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the plant is, “…native to China and Japan, where it has long been grown for its edible starchy roots and for a fibre made from its stems. Kudzu is a useful fodder crop for livestock as well as an attractive ornamental.”
Because of its large leaves and attractive purple flowers, the plant was first brought to the U.S. in the late 1800s as an ornamental addition to gardens. Incredibly enough, its first exposure as an ornamental plant came when it was used in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, which is the first World’s Fair held in the U.S. After that it was utilized in the South as a shade crop on porches.
In addition, farmers and landscapers were encouraged (well, paid by the government) to plant Kudzu along banks to prevent erosion. The plant was particularly weaponized to combat the plague that was the Dust Bowl. Kudzu became so popular that it was spread all over the U.S. as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps which was a New Deal component that promoted stewardship and job creation in the States. The idea was that since kudzu laid roots rather quickly, it would anchor the dirt in place, and afterward, you could feed it to your livestock.
Well, they were right. It does grow and lay roots rather quickly. Alternative names for the plant are the foot-a-night plant or the plant-that-ate-the-South. So, how fast did it really grow? And, what ill effects did it have?
So apparently, mature Kudzu actually does grow about 12 inches per day. In a single season, mature plants are said to grow around 60 feet in optimal situations. That is really fast for a plant.
The plant is considered invasive because it takes over entire ecosystems, and it does so quickly. This is due to many factors. Since the plant was taken out of its native range, it was also taken out of the environment that kept its growth within ecological limits. Here in the U.S., the only pest that actually eats the plant in larger quantities is the Kudzu Bug. What is concerning about this particular insect is that it is a legume generalist so it will feast on soybeans too, which is a farming crop.
Another reason why this plant has done so well is that Southern winter does not kill the plant. Frosts and cold front may kill back the leaves and stem but the root part stays safe and lives to grow again the next year.
In 2010, it was estimated by the Forest Service that 227,000 acres of land were covered in Kudzu. This is more than twice the size of the city of Atlanta.
I was always told that if we did not stop the plant, it would cover (and kill) everything in its path. And, there is some merit to that — Kudzu does have some ill effects.
For one, it displaces native plants; it takes up space and nutrients that would have otherwise been used by more traditional species. It potentially (we don’t really know) changes the ecology of areas with respect to how quickly it uses and distributes resources. Energy companies use a lot of money and hours tending to the kudzu that climbs the power poles and lines. And remember that Kudzu Bug? Well, it is believed that it hitched a ride to the states on some kudzu. And like its namesake, it is seen as a nuisance too.
How’s Kudzu Doing these Days?
Well, anecdotally, it appears to be receding, or at the very least not “eating the South.” Bill Finch, journalist and horticulturist with Smithsonian Magazine, writes that:
“Like most Southern children, I accepted, almost as a matter of faith, that kudzu grew a mile a minute and that its spread was unstoppable. I had no reason to doubt declarations that kudzu covered millions of acres, or that its rampant growth could consume a large American city each year. I believed, as many still do, that kudzu had eaten much of the South and would soon sink its teeth into the rest of the nation.”
He said that as he grew up and began to get his wits about him, he began to question what he imagined as a kid. Was kudzu really this green viny menace that the South had made it out to be? Finch writes:
“The more I investigate, the more I recognize that kudzu’s place in the popular imagination reveals as much about the power of American mythmaking, and the distorted way we see the natural world, as it does about the vine’s threat to the countryside.”
Unlike a lot of invasive species, Kudzu is really visible. And since it was specifically planted on roadsides and urban-adjacent areas to control erosion, many people (like myself) would think that it is everywhere. Mechanical control, kudzu bugs, herbicides, and even goats, seem to be keeping this plant from really moving anywhere.
Apparently, Kudzu is just a really great poster child for invasive species generally. The plant is not spreading as fast as the myth would like us to believe. And more importantly, it is not eating the South.