Kudzu Crimes

Early Morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway, July 2016

From my roadside perch, the lightening sky reveals broad leaves, thick vines across the pavement river in front of me. I cannot peer into the woods, see no entrance and no exit. Only deep green leaves. They are crusted with millions of droplets of water, each catching the sunlight, splitting ray into rainbow. These vines loom overhead. Regal, resplendent upon their throne, and choking the life from the very trees which support them, their loyal subjects. Strong oaks which have stood for a hundred years in this medium growth forest. Tulip poplars which have grown straight and true. Even sassafras saplings, scrawny and stark. I’ve seen the glistening towers of kudzu by the roadside, choking and squeezing: one life exchanged for another.

The trouble with invasive species, I read in an old notebook of mine, is that they have no natural predators. With nothing checking its power in the food chain, the species reproduces at an exponential rate, spreading faster than even humans can control. And woe to the native species which impedes or even aids the foreign organism. They quickly become collateral damage, wasted and shriveled in the wake of the alien body tearing through the region.  Kudzu, the vine which has caught my attention today, is often referred to as “the vine that ate the South.” It’s an apt name. The most recent evidence from a 2010 study “Kudzu: History, Physiology, and Ecology Combine to Make a Major Ecosystem Threat” estimates that kudzu currently covers 3 million hectares, or 7.4 million acres. Swaths of kudzu wrap around trees in edge habitats, reaching into the highest echelons of the canopy and creeping along the ground. Powerful enough to uproot mature trees, and hardy enough to withstand a variety of conditions, kudzu thrives at the expense of native species, smothering trees with a thick layer of leaves, and outcompeting plants for essential nutrients. Invasive species, like anything in excess, smother, control, and exterminate other forms of life.

The kudzu grove that I have found, spanning the roadside near Panther Falls, Virginia is about 120 yards long, the length of a football field with end zones included. Dependent upon fairly direct sunlight, the kudzu doesn’t penetrate very deep into the actual forest, but covers its perimeter with thick, dark leaves. Once established in its habitat, kudzu can grow up to 60 feet in one season, averaging about one foot per day. In its wake, it leaves the land bereft, stripped of any notion of a living plant or tree. In the American South, which boasts a high level of biodiversity, the killer plant, along with other invasive species, threaten to significantly downgrade the variety of life found in forests. And yet this vine was introduced to America intentionally.

According to an ACES document detailing the history, uses, and control of kudzu in Alabama, the vine was brought to America in 1876 for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as an exhibition of an ornamental vine which could be used to shade porches and courtyards in Southern states. In this setting, the growth of kudzu was kept relatively contained. By the mid to late 1930s, the Soil Erosion Service, tasked with reducing soil erosion in the South, had struck upon kudzu as the answer. Roughly 85 million kudzu seedlings were distributed to landowners and farmers to cultivate. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted seeds throughout the South. A governmental reward of up to $8 per acre was offered to encourage farmers to cover their farms in kudzu, to hold loose topsoil in place. By 1946, about 3 million acres of kudzu had been planted on farms. Beyond the practical purposes of kudzu, the vine had also developed a following: kudzu festivals were held where people were crowned kudzu kings or queens. Kudzu clubs sprouted as rapidly as the vine itself. In 1943, the Kudzu Club of America was funded, which at its peak had a membership of about 20,000 individuals. By the 1950s, however, the plant had spread rapidly throughout the South, thriving in the long growing season, warm climate, plentiful rainfall, and lack of disease and insect enemies. The once revered plant became first a nuisance, then a threat. 

Curious to make further observations, I step closer to the solid kudzu wall in front of me. While I have long been aware of the detrimental effects of kudzu, I have only ever observed it from afar, through the tinted glass of a car window, or in sunny field. Up close these tri-lobed leaves seem even broader, stretching their veins wide. The vine, long and woody, has tiny hairs bristling from its stem. Sweeping the dense foliage aside, I wade into the thick leaves, brush them from the trunk of a tree which has been turned into a support for the vine. This particular tree—oh, irony of ironies—appears to be an Eastern Hemlock, an increasingly rare species of trees. Hemlocks are under attack by an invasive Japanese insect known as the woolly adelgid. One quick check to the underside of what few needles remain on this tree confirms what I already suspect to be true—this tree is suffering at the hands of not one, but two invasive species. The hemlock I have found is being choked by kudzu, and its sap (the very life-blood of the tree) sucked from its branches by woolly adelgids. 

Invasive species threaten biodiversity, endangering other species by either preying upon them outright, or outcompeting them for resources. Additionally, invasive species like the West Nile virus can even harm human health. Further, the economic impact of invasive species can be intensive. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the more than 6,500 harmful invasive species in America cause over 100 billion dollars in damage each year. This ranges from the loss of crops, clogging of waterways and water facilities, and increased fire vulnerability, to the transmission of wildlife and human disease, threats to fisheries, and threats to ranchers and farmers. Invasive species are often spread unintentionally—Burmese pythons, which are becoming an increasingly prevalent problem in the Everglades, were originally pets released by their owners who found them too difficult to care for. Insidious insects hitch rides in the wood of shipping boxes, even dried plants used as packing material in shipments of fragile goods somehow find their way to the yard and take root. 

According to the National Wildlife Foundation, climate change in the form of higher average temperatures and changes in rain and snow patterns will enable certain invasive plant species to thrive—kudzu is one such plant. Insect pest infestations will become even more severe, as drought-weakened plants lose their ability to fight back. Already aggressive species will have even less competition, driving the biodiversity of a given ecosystem down. In the case of kudzu, its growth is so prolific and so stifling that the ecosystem turns into a monoculture of only kudzu. The most recent evidence from a 2010 study “Kudzu: History, Physiology, and Ecology Combine to Make a Major Ecosystem Threat” estimates that kudzu currently covers 3 million hectares, or 7.4 million acres. Though it remains an unkempt, poorly publicized problem, kudzu has fallen from grace with the American public. There are, however, still invasive species which, despite their fast-moving, hostile interactions with foreign environments, are still bought and sold in nurseries around America.

Privet, for example, a species of thick shrub with beautiful flowers which, while in bloom, fill the air with a glorious, sweet scent, is marketed and sold as the ideal hedge-building plant. It grows quickly, thrives without much care, and adapts to a wide range of light conditions. These properties are exactly what make them an ideal invasive plant as well—privet spreads easily, adapts to live nearly anywhere, and reproduces both sexually and asexually. Even a wayward root fragment left in the soil can take root and create a new plant. And privet is sold widely, planted in neat hedges, proudly maintaining its coiffed leaves at the forefront of manicured lawns while it creeps unnoticed further and further into wild spaces. 

Why plant something like privet? I wonder to myself. How could I have seen it at the nursery yesterday? How could I have found some seedlings online, for anyone to order and plant this morning? Mere ignorance can’t be the whole excuse. Surely those who cultivate it, who sell it to the masses must know. Is this an indication of societal priorities? Of the pursuit of surface-level perfection with no eye for the future? How can invasive species still thrive hundreds of years after they’ve been introduced to a country? Are there any cases where the positive contributions of a nonnative invasive organism outweigh the negatives? The honeybee was introduced to North America in the 16th century, used to produce honey and pollinate crops. Recently, in part due to colony collapse disorder, which has been destroying bee hives at an alarming rate, honeybees have become a poster child of conservation. But honeybees outcompete native bees, making it harder for them to survive. And yet honeybees represent a larger cause of conservation. They have encouraged people to plant more flowers and free their yards and farms from pesticide usage. Is the honeybee good? Even though it hurts wild bees? Is privet okay because it is beautiful and good smelling? Can the anti-erosive, stabilizing presence of kudzu redeem it of its monstrous appetite?

The truth is that the world operates in gradations of gray. And while invasive species are usually toxic, they don’t always destroy. Even invasive species also can contribute to ecosystems. They have certainly entered the public imagination of nature. These kudzu stands I see protect the slopes from withering away, offer leaves for grazing animals to feed upon. I might never be happy to see kudzu, but it is here; I’ve seen the glistening towers of kudzu by the roadside. It might be time to figure out how best to put it to work.


Sources: Much of what I know of invasive species is from past ecology classes taken, and informal experiences in the field with friends. I did use a few sources, however, for harder statistical facts in order to more fully support my arguments. They are all embedded in a signal phrase in the sentence before the facts were stated. The NWF and USGS proved to be especially useful sources.