Each year the hills surrounding Vicksburg as well as much of the land in the southeastern United States are covered with a hauntingly beautiful green cloak. Visitors from outside the region are amazed at the miles and miles of landscape, entire trees, telephone poles and abandoned structures that are beneath the summer canopy. Children delight in finding the distorted shapes of dinosaurs, people and what my daughter called the “Kudzu Monsters” to be found in the seemingly endless waves of kudzu.
Yes, the mysterious green gown that covers the southern landscape is kudzu. So widespread is the proliferation of kudzu in the South that it has earned the nickname, “The vine that ate the South.” The vegetation is so abundant that most people would assume that kudzu is native to the region. The truth is that the species was introduced to the United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Japan’s contribution to the Centennial Exposition was a remarkable garden composed of plants unknown to the United States. One of the exotic plants was kudzu. The large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms of kudzu captured the imagination of American gardeners who used the plant for ornamental purposes. The climate of Japan does not allow for the rapid and widespread growth of the plant. However, with the southeast’s mild winters and not having predators in sight, kudzu stampeded across the region.
The plant was later introduced to the southeast at the 1883 New Orleans Exposition. The vine was widely marketed as an ornamental plant to be used to shade porches. In the first half of the 20th Century kudzu was distributed as a high-protein cattle fodder and as a cover plant to prevent soil erosion. In fact, by 1946 over 3,000,000 acres, 85 million seedlings, had been planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in its efforts to prevent soil erosion.
Once established in a habitat, kudzu can grow very quickly. Kudzu can grow up to 60 feet per season, or about one foot per day. Kudzu is also able to allocate large portions of carbon to root growth, allowing it to acquire sufficient nutrients for rapid growth and to spread clonally. The deep roots of the plant make eradication extremely difficult. The roots can grow up to seven feet long and weigh approximately 220 pounds. Mechanical, chemical and biological attempts to remove the vines have proven unsuccessful. In 1970 the United States Department of Agriculture listed kudzu as an invasive weed and by 1997 it had been placed on the Federal Noxious Weed list.
The economic impact of kudzu in the United States is estimated at $100 – 500 million lost per year in forest productivity. It costs about $2,500 per acre per year to control kudzu. Kudzu management is of great concern in the management of national parks in the southeast. Vicksburg National Military Park, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Parks and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park all must deal with the encroachment onto new acreage and devastation in areas already swallowed by the vines.
So, when your kids asked you what all that stuff is you can them how kudzu became “the vine that ate the South.” They’ll have fun finding their own “Kudzu Monsters,” too.