In the same way that you could imagine shapes in the clouds, children growing up in Georgia or Alabama can imagine shapes out of the large, towering vines of kudzu that sprawl across our landscapes.
Growing up, I always thought kudzu locked out of place, that it would fit better in the jungles I saw in my cartoons. To be fair, I wasn’t far off. Kudzu doesn’t belong here, and the aggressive plant introduced in the 1800s still threatens our biodiversity today.
The aptly nicknamed “vine that ate the South’ was introduced in the late 1800s as a fascinating plant from Asia, but wasn’t widespread until decades later.
It truly started its journey when it was planted for shade and livestock forage and in the 1930s in the Southeast to fight soil erosion as a cover plant. The government even offered up to eight dollars an acre to farmers willing to plant kudzu. By 1946, about three million acres of kudzu were planted by farmers. There were even kudzu clubs and kudzu festivals celebrating the plant.
In the 1950s people started to realize that planting kudzu might have been a mistake. Kudzu can grow a foot every single day. In an effort to maximize its exposure to sunlight, kudzu will begin to cover everything from trees to telephone poles to abandoned cars. The vines are so overwhelming and strong they can break branches and uproot trees.
Kudzu began dominating the landscapes it was introduced to and people began abandoning their farms due to its uncontrolled spread through their land, making farming impossible. By 1997 the weed was put on the federal Noxious Weed list. While it no longer holds a place on the federal list, it is still considered a noxious weed in many states. Today, Kudzu has spread into Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Nebraska. It has even reportedly been spotted in Michigan, New York, Oregon and Washington.
It is hard to determine exactly all of the environmental impacts of kudzu’s takeover of the South because there have been limited proper studies into it. We do know, however, that due to its nature and the dense shading the plant provides the areas it takes over have majorly-reduced biodiversity. While the shade and cover provided by the vines limits biodiversity due to limits on sunlight, the ground cover from kudzu can also limit plant diversity as it smothers seeds and saplings attempting to grow.
The negative impacts aren’t limited to the plant itself. Pests such as the Asian soybean rust and kudzu bug can also bring significant problems.
Kudzu bugs were first detected in 2009 and they suck the sap from kudzu and soybeans. Nearby soybean farmers can suffer major crop loss due to these bugs, and they carry a foul odor with them as they hover on farms and residential areas as well.
While there are negative aspects to kudzu you can make some use out of it if you are plagued by it. The flowers can be used to make jams and syrups while the leaves can be cooked and used in salads or quiches. Just make sure to thoroughly wash them before using your culinary skills.
You can also dry out the vines and use them to weave baskets or create beautiful wreaths. The vines dry to a dark grayish-brown color. After you’ve practiced your skill on a few baskets you can try your hand at weaving lampshades from kudzu, which gives a natural feel to your room.
Today we have risk assessment tools to attempt to evaluate the dangers of introducing new plants to an environment, but it can still be an imperfect process.
We can carry the lesson of kudzu to our own gardens and choose to focus on planting native plants that both thrive and benefit in our environment. While a new exotic plant may be appealing, you may face more consequences than you plan for.
For more information on the history and use of kudzu look to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.