James Zachary Sicking
North Carolina is a state well known for its lush natural habitats – forests filled with trees like oak, ash, long-leaf and short-leaf pine, and of course the dogwood tree. The understory of the woods is often a deep carpet of pine needles and dead leaves, with ferns and flowers growing here or there while moss creeps up the sides of trees. However, there has been an invasion into these woods that has choked the life out of many trees and ruined several ecosystems. Sometimes referred to as “the vine that ate the South,” kudzu is an invasive species native to Southeast Asia that was introduced in 1876 via Philadelphia, and via New Orleans in 1883. It was originally intended to fill several roles: as an ornamental plant, food for cattle and as an anchoring plant to reduce soil erosion. The vine quickly exceeded human capability to control it, especially after a proliferation of boll weevils that killed many crops and drove farmers away from their plots and into the cities, and spread rapidly over the Southeast United States.
Kudzu is an invasive species that effectively smothers trees and other plants. Most commonly, kudzu takes over trees by crawling up the trunk and covering the entire tree, making the tree incapable of getting the sunlight it requires to survive. In addition, kudzu’s proliferation also introduces more competition for water among itself and native species, again depriving vital resources. In extreme cases, kudzu is capable of breaking limbs and even uprooting entire trees. It can grow up to a foot a day, which also exceeds the capabilities of most other plants growing within North Carolina’s borders.
The extraordinarily rapid spread of kudzu is a result of a few attributes of the plant. The most noteworthy attribute is that it is extremely drought tolerant. Since North Carolina (especially in the past few years) is prone to seasonal drought, kudzu is more than capable of thriving while other plants are weakened or killed off by the drought. In addition to that characteristic, kudzu is also quite capable of surviving colder weather. North Carolina is well known for its late November frosts, and frosts that continue throughout the year. On top of the frost, there are occasional periods of snow and ice. Usually only the aboveground, exposed part of the vine is damaged in these periods. Below ground, it can remain dormant and will quickly grow back as soon as the weather improves. Eradication of the plant is very difficult, because additional vines can separate from other vines and become independent. So simply cutting the stem of kudzu will most likely not guarantee its removal.
Despite the tenacity of kudzu, there are a few viable options to control or eradicate it. Ironically, the most effective method of control is the simplest. Grazing animals such as goats and sheep are capable of eating the plant at a very fast rate. Unfortunately, this option is not always the easiest to pursue. Many kudzu infestations are in areas that cannot be easily reached by sheep or goats, and those herds need to be controlled themselves, so that they do not do unintended harm to the surrounding and unaffected ecosystem. Another effective option is mowing the kudzu. During the growing season, kudzu cut down to ground level a few times will eventually not grow back. Additionally, the cut material must be utterly destroyed (burning is a good option) in order to ensure that it does not take root and spread again. While this method is effective, it is extremely time consuming. Finally, chemical options are available to kill kudzu. Herbicides are very time-efficient, but are not as effective as other methods, due to the inherent toughness of the vine. Potential harm of the plants being affected by the kudzu and surrounding the infestation must also be taken into consideration. For that reason, chemical alternatives are not used very often.
While kudzu can wreak havoc on environments, it is not an entirely useless plant. As previously mentioned, it was used as cattle feed, and it a very nutritious plant for animals and humans alike. Some Asian countries use the plant to make several starchy dishes, and even a jelly. It is also a useful item for the manufacture of clothing, paper, and baskets. Perhaps if some of these uses were more readily adopted in North Carolina and the Southeastern United States in general, perhaps the negative effects of kudzu could be somewhat offset, at least in economic terms. While using kudzu to produce is not very widespread, it is used in the United States to make soaps, lotions, and to aid in compost.
Personally, I find kudzu to be more of an eyesore than anything. Driving down the highways of North Carolina, one is usually able to see great swaths of trees along the edge of the road. Unfortunately, many of these great lengths of trees are afflicted by kudzu. Instead of trees, one has to see an ugly, invasive vine slowly choking the life out of the trees. It is even worse to see the older trees being claimed by it. The old trees were able to survive development, highways, and general human influence, but a creeping vine is what will kill them.
Class of 2014
Political Science and Peace, War and Defense
Huntersville, North Carolina
1. Jeffrey Collins (2003). "If You Can't Beat Kudzu, Join It". Off the Wall. Duke Energy Employee Advocate. http://www.dukeemployees.com/offthewall2.shtml
2. USDA Plants Profile. http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=pumo
3. Cain, Michael L.; Bowman, William D.; Hacker, Sally D. (2011). Ecology. Sinauer Associates, Inc. p. 246.
4. Richard J. Blaustein (2001). "Kudzu's invasion into Southern United States life and culture" (PDF). United States Department of Agriculture. www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/ja_blaustein001.pdf
5. Webster, CR, MA Jenkins, and S Jose. “Woody Invaders and the Challenges They Pose to Forest Ecosystems in the Eastern United States” Journal of Forestry, Vol. 104, 366-274. 2006.