Kudzu: The Vine that Ate the South

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PHOTO: Kudzu growing in American Southeast, courtesy of Scott Ehardt.
PHOTO: Kudzu growing in American Southeast, courtesy of Scott Ehardt.

On the night of December 7, 1941, Americans went to bed with an uneasy feeling as rumors abounded that the Japanese Imperial Army would soon be staging an invasion of the nation’s mainland.  Earlier that morning, the Asian nation had attacked Pearl Harbor without warning and American military officials feared that our nation’s west coast was ill prepared to thwart a largescale Japanese invasion.

In the end, these rumors proved to be nothing more than mere hearsay and less than five years later any fear of a Japanese military invasion was forever erased; however, unbeknownst to most, a Japanese invasion on the continental United States had already begun almost a century earlier and was sweeping across the heart of Dixie much like a trojan horse.

In celebration of the United State’s 100th birthday, a Centennial World Exposition was held in Philadelphia and nations from around the globe were invited to showcase various items of cultural, agricultural and technological significance.

Japanese officials brought with them an exotic vine that thrived in the island country’s mountainous regions, doing well in both warm and cooler weather.  The name of this plant was Kudzu and southerners quickly fell in love with the plant’s fast-growing nature and thick shade.

In 1883 the plant appeared at the New Orleans Exposition and soon the vine was found lining porches throughout the Southland.

In the years ahead, farmers in the South would grow to see the nutritional value of the vine and would feed the high-protein plant to cattle, as well as cover fields in the plant in order to prevent soil erosion.

Government agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and Department of Agriculture cultivated the plant and landowners were encouraged to plant kudzu on mountainsides in order to control erosion of slopes.

By the end of World War II, it was estimated that more than 3-million acres in the United States were covered in kudzu, but in a matter of years, farmers, government officials and landowners began to recognize that what their fathers and grandfathers believed to be a miracle vine was actually one of the most invasive weeds to ever invade the country.

By 1970, the federal government had ceased to recommend land owners to plant the vine and instead listed the Japanese plant as a weed.  Twenty-seven years later, the plant would be placed on the “Federal Noxious Weed List”.

Today, the plant is estimated to cover over 7.4-million acres in the southeastern United States and can be observed as far north as Canada.

Being both drought-tolerant and capable of surviving in extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, has made the plant the perfect nightmare for the southern Appalachian Mountains.  “Kudzu kills or damages other plants by smothering them under a blanket of leaves, encompassing tree trunks, breaking branches, or even uprooting entire trees. Kudzu’s ability to grow quickly, survive in areas of low nitrogen availability, and acquire resources quickly allows it to out-compete native species.”

Though there is debate among ecologists, it has been estimated that the plant is presently spreading in the southern United States at the rate of 150,000 acres annually, “easily outpacing the use of herbicide spraying and mowing, as well increasing the costs of these controls by $6 million annually”.

The plant has earned it the nickname, “The vine that ate the South”.

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