Kudzu, we hardly knew you

Kudzu, we hardly knew you

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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

Elizabeth Licata
on September 8, 2015 at 7:50 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy.

    • Susan
    • 25th June 2017

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

    • Marilyn
    • 21st August 2017

    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.

    • skr
    • 26th August 2017

    The point of the article is to say, “hey look at this really interesting article in The Smithsonian.”

    • Elizabeth
    • 28th August 2017

    Also that horrible invasive weeds can still be fascinating.

    • Bill
    • 7th September 2017

    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.

    • Karen Olson Weaver
    • 11th September 2017

    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
    • 11th September 2017

    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

    • admin
    • 12th September 2017

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

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