In 1876, an Asian vine was introduced to the people of the United States at a centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a fairly benign looking vine, with its leaves of three and its cluster of sweet pea like flowers, but its exotic appeal must have been quite enticing, because it took off…and not just in popularity.
The plant that caught the eye of these early Americans was called kudzu (or kuzu in Japanese). It is a plant in the genus Pueraria in the family Fabaceae (the pea family). The plants first introduced to the U.S. were likely to have consisted of more than a single species such as P. montana, P. lobata, P. edulis, and others, or were hybrids of these species. They were initially lauded for their ornamental value but soon after were recognized for their potential as animal feed. By the 1930’s, when soil erosion had become a major issue, kudzu was deployed by the U.S. government to combat it. At least 85 million government-funded kudzu seedlings later, and the southeastern portion of the United States had secured a future dominated by this relentless and unforgiving vine.
Innocent and harmless is how kudzu must have first appeared, especially to those looking for a fast growing, large-leaved, vining plant to provide quick shade for porches, offering relief from the sun during those sweltering southern summers. Little did they know, however, if left unchecked, that prized vine could engulf homes and outbuildings, cover and pull down trees and utility poles, and choke out crops and pastures in the matter of a single growing season.
Kudzu was added to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997, long after it had established itself throughout the southeastern U.S. It now covers more than 3 million hectares, spreading at a pace of about 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) per year. It is said that a kudzu vine can grow up to a foot in a single day or about 60 feet in a growing season. It is a twining vine, wrapping itself around any upright structure it can access and relying on that support in order to advance upwards. This gives it the advantage of using more resources for growth and expansion of both roots and shoots rather than on the resource demanding task of producing woody stems. Like other members of the pea family, it gets much of its nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen fixation. Because of this, kudzu can thrive in nutrient poor soils. Kudzu is also drought-tolerant, has leaves that follow the sun throughout the day in order to maximize photosynthesis, reproduces clonally by layering (stems in contact with the ground grow roots and detach from the parent plant), and (in North America) is free from the pests and diseases commonly associated with it in its native habitat. For these reasons and others, kudzu has become one of the most notorious, pervasive, and ecologically harmful weeds in the U.S., costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages every year.
One glance at what kudzu has done in the southeastern states, and it is obvious that it is some kind of superweed. I saw firsthand just how overwhelming it can be as I drove through Mississippi several years ago. I didn’t even have to stop the car to investigate. It was easily apparent that it was the dominant species, enveloping every tree for miles alongside the highway. Currently, kudzu can be found in every county in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But kudzu has a limitation; it doesn’t care much for freezing temperatures. Even though it has been present in parts of northern states – like Ohio, New Jersey, and Delaware – for a while now, it has generally been limited to milder locations, and it certainly doesn’t thrive in the same way that it does in the subtropical climates of the southern states. But that is changing, because the climate is changing.
Average global temperatures increased by about 1.53° F between 1880 and 2012, and this gradual increase is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Biologists and ecologists are monitoring changes in climate closely in order to observe and predict changes in the biology and ecology of our planet. Invasive species are high on the list of concerns, as climate is often a major limitation to their spread. Now that kudzu has been found in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, the fear of kudzu climbing north is becoming a reality.
Kudzu is incredibly difficult to control. It does not respond to many herbicides, and the herbicides that do affect it must be applied repeatedly over a long time period. It is an excellent forage plant, so utilizing grazing animals to keep it in check can be effective. Those who have succumbed to kudzu, acknowledging that it is here to stay, have found uses for it, including making baskets, paper, biofuel, and various food items. A compound extracted from the kudzu root is also being studied as a possible treatment for alcoholism. Kudzu has long been valued for its culinary and medicinal uses in Asia, so it is no surprise that uses would be found for it in North America. However, North Americans who embrace kudzu are taking a defeatist approach. That is, “if we can’t get rid of it, we may as well find a use for it.” This, however, should not negate nor distract from the damage it has caused and continues to cause local ecosystems and the ecological threat that it poses to areas where it is just now being introduced or may soon be introduced due to our warming climate.