Invasion of the south by kudzu

“Kudzu: the vine that ate the South”
~Wendy Higgins, Sweet Evil
As we made our way further south, we began to notice kudzu vines climbing the mountains and up trees, shrubs, and power lines, smothering anything in their path.  

Kudzu (KUD-zoo in the Deep South and KOOD-zoo most everywhere else) is a prolific leguminous vine of the genus Pueraria native to the Orient. 

Kudzu was promoted as a forage crop and an ornamental plant when it was introduced to the U.S. at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Many southern farmers were encouraged to plant kudzu for erosion control from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1950’s.In 1953, kudzu was removed from the US Department of Agriculture’s list of permissible cover plants due to its recognition as a pest species. An estimated 2 million acres of forest land in the southern United States is covered with kudzu.

The South’s combination of a long growing season, a warm climate, and plentiful rainfall promote growth ot the plant that has almost no natural enemies here to keep it’s in check. (In Japan, by contrast, a less ideal environment plus insect predators and disease keep the vine in check.) Kudzu kills or damages other plants by smothering them under a solid blanket of leaves, encircling woody stems and tree trunks, and breaking branches or uprooting entire trees and shrubs. Once established, kudzu can grow at a rate of one foot per day, with mature vines reaching 100 feet in length. It is spread by vines that root at the nodes to form new plants.

States where kudzu is considered to be invasive

Kudzu can be poisoned with a number of newly developed, highly toxic herbicides, but repeated applications are required over several years which becomes expensive. The poisons also kill all nearby plants and make the land unfit for growing other crops for 6 to 12 months. Exposed to the elements, the large areas of land on which no other crops will grow are subject to severe erosion.

Native vines such as trumpet creeper, pipevine, passionflower, native trumpet honeysuckle and native bittersweet have attractive flowers and fruits and provide food for wildlife. They should be used in landscaping and for restoration in areas which they are native.

The arrival of the kudzu bug in the US poses further potential problems. The kudzu bug uses its piercing sucking mouthparts to rob plants of water and nutrients and can cause significant yield loss. Kudzu bug was first detected in the US in the Atlanta, GA metropolitan area in 2009, having originated in Asia and was likely transported to the US in international commerce.  The first detection resulted from homeowners contacting pest control operators for relief from the “new bug” trying to gain entry into their homes. The Kudzu bug has quickly become a significant pest of soybean and other legume crops in the southeast. Researchers at the University of Georgia have shown an average yield loss of 18% yield loss (maximum 47% ) in sprayed vs. unsprayed soybeans. Since that time Kudzu bug has spread across the southeastern states probably by “hitchhiking” on vehicles moving through the infested areas. It is not a regulated pest so there is no quarantine program to limit its movement.

Kudzu can be harvested and used to make soaps, lotions, rope, twine, baskets, wall paper, paper, fuel  and compost. It can also be baled like hay with most grazing animals liking it, especially goats.

The leaves, vine tips, flowers, and rootsof kudzu are all edible; the vines are not. The leaves can be used like spinach and eaten raw, chopped up and baked in quiches, cooked like collards, or deep fried. Young kudzu shoots are tender and taste similar to snow peas. Kudzu also produces beautiful, purple-colored, grape-smelling blossoms that make delicious jelly, candy, and syrup. Some people have used these to make homemade wine. The large potato-like roots are full of protein, iron, fiber, and other nutrients. They are dried and then ground into a powder which is used to coat foods before frying or to thicken sauces. Kudzu powder is made into a smooth and soothing thickened broth called Kudzu Cream ( Kudzu-yu), which helps to develop an alkaline constitution. It also provides quick relief from intestinal and digestive disorders (upset stomach and acid indigestion), hangover, fever, colds, and a variety of more serious ailments.

 Ruth Duncan of Greenville, Alabama, known as the “Queen of Kudzu
makes over 200 kudzu baskets each year.
Kudzu birdshouse by Regina Hines
 Advice for cultivating kudzu:

“Choosing a plot : Although kudzu will grow quite well on cement, 
you should select an area having at least a little dirt.
When to plant : Kudzu should be planted at night to avoid neighbors seeing you
 and throwing rocks.
Fertilization : Forty-weight, non-detergent motor oil applied to the underside of tender leaves prevents their scraping when kudzu begins its rapid growth.
Mulching : For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, 
mulch heavily with concrete blocks!”
~Tifton B. Merritt