Kudzu. The mere mention of the word often invokes a visceral combination of both annoyance and fear. Personally, I think of the movie ‘The Blob’ which was first released in 1958 starring Steve McQueen and Aneta Corseaut battling a gelatinous, alien life form that slowly engulfed everything in its path. Similarly, I view kudzu as a scary, green pest slowly creeping along, plaguing the land in which it captures, and becoming the perfect habitat for an evil creature to live patiently waiting for its next unsuspecting victim to wander too close! Am I being a bit dramatic? Possibly. However, I’ve yet to meet anything other than a rattlesnake that considers kudzu a friend.
I was recently showing a beautiful tract of land to a client. Everything was going well until we rounded a corner and there it was – a gigantic kudzu patch that looked like it had been growing for decades. Rightfully so, the client expressed concern with having this on the property. He wondered if kudzu could be eradicated and if so, would it be in his best interest to do so from both a financial and land preservation perspective. These great questions left me eager to learn more about this common yet mysterious annoyance that I had become somewhat complacent towards having grown up in the South. Where did it come from originally? Did it have a purpose? If destroyed, does it do more harm than good? I’d always considered kudzu a foe…but could it be a friend?
Cultures in the Pacific Rim utilize the kudzu root in cooking, teas, and herbal remedies. The history of kudzu in the United States began in 1876, where it was brought to the World’s Fair in Philadelphia from Japan with the purpose of controlling soil erosion. Seven years later, the Deep South embraced it as a beautiful ornamental plant that provided excellent shade for porches during the sweltering summer months! Mesmerized by the immediate benefits of this hearty plant many of our ancestors used it for livestock feed, fertilizer, honey, and even a potential source for bio-fuel. The government embraced the kudzu “bandwagon” and paid folks to plant it. By 1946, they estimated over 3 million acres had been planted throughout the country. They soon realized that this “dream plant” was turning out to be a nightmare rapidly spreading up to a foot a day especially in the Southeastern states due to its drought- thriving indigenous nature. It climbed up trees, shrubs, and anything in its path… like “The Blob” …blocking sun rays thus diminishing or eliminating all of the photosynthetic productivity of the plush greenery underneath. Any soil erosion it may have prevented was ultimately a moot point considering its path of natural plant destruction.
In 1953, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed kudzu from their list of suggested cover plants. It was not until 1997, however, that it made the Federal noxious weed list. To date, it is believed that kudzu now covers close to 7.5 million acres in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida alone! In addition to being a nuisance, kudzu has a significantly negative economic impact throughout the United States. It is estimated that power companies spend between $1,500,000 – $1,700,000 annually to repair power line damage caused by kudzu. The U.S. Forest Service reports have a much more conservative estimate of approximately 227,000 acres of kudzu growing in our forests. Some estimates are that close to $300,000,000 of lost forest productivity occurs annually due to kudzu infestation.
So, what did I tell my client? Not to automatically dismiss a property because of kudzu, however, be sure to estimate the cost and time involved with controlling it. County extension offices are typically equipped to assist landowners in determining the best plan of action based on their specific needs and location. Here are some of the most commonly used techniques for controlling kudzu on private land:
- Mechanically: mowing or cutting the vine back to slightly above ground level. Kudzu debris should be completely removed then burned to prevent regrowth. Another mechanical method involves completely removing the root crown by using a shovel to expose the base and then an axe to sever the root just below the crown.
- Chemically: applying herbicides once at the beginning of the growing season (May) and then again in late summer or early fall. To completely kill the plant, plan on spraying 40-80 gallons an acre bi annually for a few years. Tordon and Triclopyr are common herbicides used to eradicate kudzu.
- Naturally: enlisting the help of animals to graze the kudzu. Many use a small herd of goats or sheep to help in the battle.
Kudzu. It just goes to show you that something that started way back in 1876 as a clever idea to control soil erosion turned out to be a foe at best, “The Blob” at worst, and most definitely not a friend.