OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Kudzu, Kudzu Vine, Mile-a-minute
Vine, Foot-a-night Vine, Miracle Vine, The Vine
that Ate the South, Porch Vine, Telephone Vine, Wonder Vine.
Scientific name: Pueraria lobata
Explanation of scientific name:
- commemorates M. N. Puerari (1765 – 1845), a European
- Latin for lobed, as are some of the leaves of
One of the common
names of Kudzu, The Vine
that Ate the South,
just about says it all. This amazing yet often despised species covers over 7
million acres of the Southeastern US in a dense tangle of vines that scramble up
and over anything that doesn’t move out of its way. It readily out-competes
the native vegetation, and seriously disrupts the ecosystems in which it is
found. How did this aggressive weed become so widespread? Unfortunately, we can
only blame ourselves because we imported the plant on purpose, and planted tens
of millions of its seedlings throughout the South. Kudzu thrived in its new home
and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kudzu’s history in
the US began in 1876 at the Japanese Pavilion of the Philadelphia Centennial
Exposition. The Pavilion was covered in part with a vigorous vine bearing
fragrant violet-purple flowers. Many who saw this newly introduced Asian native
admired its beauty. Since it was not hardy in areas with extremely cold winters,
Kudzu became popular only in the South, where people first planted it around
porches. The quick growing vine provided screening and pleasant–scented
blooms. By the early 20th century, botanists were noting the
potential invasiveness of the species, but few took heed. Kudzu was seen as a
soil-saving plant in the South, where much of the land was historically
devastated by the over-cultivation of cotton and tobacco. Soil conservation was
becoming a concern, and by the 1930’s the US Soil Conservation Service was a
strong advocate of Kudzu. Their research had determined that the species could
control erosion, improve soil quality because of its nitrogen-fixing
capabilities, and even be harvested as cattle feed. The government paid
Depression-poor farmers $8.00 an acre to plant it and the Civilian Conservation
Corps planted 73 million Kudzu seedlings along roadways and other disturbed
sites. By the 1940’s Kudzu Clubs formed to honor what was becoming known as
the Miracle Vine. Memberships in the South exceeded 20,000, and 3 million acres
of farmland were planted with Kudzu by 1946.
As Kudzu began to
proliferate, the federal government realized that it may have created a problem
and took action. In the 1950’s Kudzu was removed from the government’s list
of recommended cover crops. In the 1960’s research began to focus on how to
eradicate the species. In 1970 Kudzu was officially declared a “weed”, and
in 1997 its status was upgraded to “noxious weed”. Kudzu continues to
spread. In 2000 it was discovered growing wild in Oregon, the first infestation
of Kudzu west of Texas. It remains to be seen how far it will range.
In NJ our
cold climate kills the vines down to the ground most winters, slowing its
progression. The thick woody roots survive, however, and the plants re-sprout in
the spring. In Summit, NJ a patch of Kudzu thrives on a hillside at Reeves-Reed
Arboretum, and has been there for at least several decades. No one seems to know
how it got started.
Aside from its aggressive growth of a foot a day and up to 60 feet per year, Kudzu can be an intriguing plant. As a member of the bean family of plants, it has much in common with garden beans and peas. The leaves consist of 3 occasionally lobed leaflets, each up to 6 inches in length. The leaves have a rough, hairy surface, as do the slender, twining stems. Wisteria-like flowers appear in dense clusters in mid-summer, especially on plants that have climbed up something. They have a grape-like fragrance, a violet-purple color, and are about ¾ inch long. They are followed by flat, hairy seedpods up to 4 inches in length. Kudzu roots can grow 12 feet deep, and the tuberous roots in older patches can weigh hundreds of pounds.
Controlling Kudzu is
no easy task. Frequent mowing or grazing can suppress this tenacious weed, and
the repeated use of chemical herbicides can kill it. A biological control agent,
the Sicklepod Fungus (Myrothecium
verrucaria), has shown promise and is currently being evaluated.
Besides its use in soil conservation, people have found other ways to utilize Kudzu. In China and Japan it has been prized for over 2000 years as a medicinal plant for a number of ailments, and its starchy roots are ground into flour for baked goods. Today in the US the vines are woven into baskets or used in papermaking. The leaves are deep-fried and eaten or incorporated into quiches. The blossoms are turned into jellies and syrups. Researchers at the Harvard University Medical School have extracted daidzin and puerarin from Kudzu, and believe these active ingredients could be useful in treating alcoholism.Light-hearted folks with a sense of humor have found The Vine that Ate the South to be amusing. Annual Kudzu festivals are held in several Georgia and South Carolina towns. Chattanooga, Tennessee hosts an annual Kudzu Ball, and a nationally syndicated comic strip entitled “Kudzu” appeared in 1981.