It's the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy

Kudzu, we hardly knew you

Kudzu image courtesy of Shutterstock

Kudzu image courtesy of Shutterstock

“Like most Southern children, I accepted, almost as a matter of faith, that kudzu grew a mile a minute and that its spread was unstoppable.”
—Bill Finch, “Legend of the Green Monster”

How many millions of acres do you suppose have been eaten by kudzu, the notorious plant predator of the South? Well, according to botanist Bill Finch, writing in this month’s Smithsonian (great mag, by the way), you might be surprised. Finch reports that the vine covers about 227,000 acres of forestland, which still seems like a lot, but is only one sixth the size of Atlanta and  nowhere near the acreage invaded by Asian privet (3.2 million) and multiflora roses (about a million). Many websites report highly exaggerated figures not only for kudzu’s spread (7–9 million acres is the common figure) but the rate at which it spreads (150k acres a year as opposed to the reality: 2,500 a year). Finch goes on to describe how the vine has actually begun to falter in its spread, thanks to a kudzu-specific pest.

Anyone who’s driven in the South can understand why kudzu has the reputation that it has. It dominates the roadside landscape, engulfing trees and abandoned structures for miles. In my area, we have a variety of different vines, invasive reeds, and other plants fighting for domination along the highways, but when you see kudzu, it tends to be all you see. Deceptively—because once in the shade of the forest, it peters out. Finch believes that the obsession with kudzu hides the true diversity of the Southern landscape.

For years, I’ve been reading about kudzu, not in horticultural sources, but in novels, essays, and short stories, usually by Southern writers. It has the kind of romantic reputation that completely eludes the plant pests of my region (bindweed, bishop’s weed, phragmites, etc.). Aside from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, we don’t celebrate our weeds quite as much up here. And it took a Southern songwriter to make pokeweed (which grows quite nicely in Buffalo) famous. I’ll enjoy my next sighting of kudzu all the more, thanks to this new information.

Here’s fellow Ranter Allen Bush’s post on kudzu.

Posted by on September 8, 2015 at 7:50 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy.
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8 responses to “Kudzu, we hardly knew you”

  1. Susan says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for the insight – which you are always so good at providing!

  2. Marilyn says:

    I am not even following the point of this article. Is it “Kudzu’s not that bad because there are worse invaders out there?” And the author is going to enjoy seeing kudzu because it “only” infests a quarter million acres? A lot of money and time has been spent controlling kudzu (and other invasive species). What if gardeners and agencies stopped introducing harmful and potentially harmful plants, instead of being ok with thouasands of acres of lost biodiversity.

  3. Bill says:

    I very much appreciate the article. Growing up in the South in the 50’s, kudzu was, at once, a horrible nuisance and a source of fascination for a child gazing at the topiary effects it creates. It is still a huge problem in places although not so much as in the past. Looking out my back window I can see an expanse of kudzu on an adjacent property belonging to an apartment complex. I take the liberty of maintaining areas beyond my property line in order to keep it under control as well as to improve my view.

    Several years ago I noticed a ‘new’ Stink Bug which I later learned is the recent arrival from Asia known as Kudzu Bug, Megacopta cribraria, which does help (slightly) keep it in check but caused me to quit trying to grow beans in my veggie garden. Kudzu is a legume.

    Also apropos of your article, the plants over which the kudzu in my view grows are mostly Asian privet and multiflora rose, which don’t seem to be bothered by the Kudzu Bugs.

    On a brighter note, I did manage to rescue a couple of patches of Trillium sessile from under the kudzu canopy.

    • Wow! That’s predictable….the natural predictor of kudzu would turn out to be something that would devastate a major food crop! I’d rather keep pulling…. BTW what are those little squares to the left of commenter’s names?

      • Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

        They’re avatars, I believe is the term. So if people have an account with WordPress, I’m assuming their photo shows up there. It does when I comment, anyway. Susan

  4. marcia says:

    “Deceptively—because once in the shade of the forest, it peters out. ”

    Then, the ISIS-like Japanese stiltgrass takes over….