Its name has appeared as an adjective, describing such words as economics, politics, and terminology. It has been compared to horror films in which the monster is killed, only to reappear in the sequel. It is, in fact, all of these things and more. As a noun it has worked its way into the modern southern language in a way that no other plant has. As an invasive it has deeply affected the economy of the American South. It arrived here politically, and it has left the region littered with the silver bullets of failed attempts to control its menace. It is kudzu, and it has left a permanent imprint on Mississippi’s environment.
In 1876 countries from around the world were invited to take part in the Centennial Celebration of the United States held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Japanese government designed an exhibition of lush gardens to showcase the country’s plants. The large leaves and sweet fragrance of the kudzu blossoms garnered much notice from gardeners, who soon began planting the vine as an ornamental. By 1900 the plant was being sold through mail-order companies as an inexpensive livestock forage, and by 1934 approximately ten thousand acres of kudzu had been planted across the South. In 1933 the US government’s Soil Erosion Service (later renamed the Soil Conservation Service) began to encourage the use of kudzu to help control agricultural erosion. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired hundreds of men to plant kudzu along drainage ditches, highways, and waterways, distributing as many as eighty-five million seedlings as part of the effort. In the Piedmont regions of Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, the planting of kudzu was encouraged as a way to hold soil in place in gullies and newly deforested regions. Farmers were paid as much as eight dollars an acre to plant the vine and received assistance from state agricultural extension services. As many as 1.2 million acres were planted under this program, but its proponents had little understanding of the potential outcome.
As early as 1902 botanist David Fairchild, who was ultimately responsible for the introduction to the United States of more than two hundred thousand exotic species, began his own experiments with kudzu and warned that it could become an invasive. That concept, however, was new, and his concerns went largely unheeded. Kudzu plantings continued until 1953, when the US Department of Agriculture noted an inability to adequately control the plant and began discouraging its use as a cover crop. Campaigns began in the 1960s to eradicate kudzu throughout the Southeast, but by the 1970s the vine was spreading faster than it was being controlled, and the Agriculture Department listed it as a “common weed of the South.” In 1998 Congress listed kudzu as a “federal noxious weed.” Today, estimates vary but most agree that millions of acres of land are kudzu-infested across the South, with between a quarter and half a million acres reported in Mississippi alone.
Environmentally, kudzu is considered an opportunistic species. The same qualities that made it attractive as a drought-resistant high-nitrogen forage crop have enabled it to thrive even where it is unwanted. The plants develop extensive root systems that can penetrate six feet or more into the ground and reach weights of four hundred pounds, permitting the vines to resist both dry periods and freezing conditions. Kudzu thrives under a wide range of conditions but grows especially well in a warm humid climate. Its large leaves promote high rates of photosynthesis, and under ideal conditions, a kudzu vine can grow up to a foot in a single day and sixty feet in a season. As the vines make their way into the forest canopy, they overtake their host, preventing light from getting through. The vine girdles woody stems and tree trunks, preventing nutrients from traveling between the root system and the canopy. Some trees are literally uprooted by the weight of the infestation. As competing native vegetation is choked out, food sources and habitats of native animals are lost, resulting in a large-scale alteration of local ecology. Kudzu is also highly flammable. The vine acts as a fuel ladder from the forest floor to the forest canopy, creating intense crown fires that can be difficult to control and can have devastating consequences for wildlife, forest regeneration, and property owners. Much farmland has been lost to kudzu infestations, but agricultural concerns are generally based on the ability of kudzu to act as a host for various pests or fungi that can affect crop productivity.
Property damage and the funding of kudzu eradication programs throughout the Southeast are costly. Hard numbers have not been published regarding the impact of kudzu on the timber industry, but the problem is well understood in Mississippi, which depends greatly on the economics of timber and agriculture. The US Forest Service has recognized kudzu as “a threat to the economy and diversity” of the state’s forested lands, and managing timber in areas of kudzu infestation is financially unfeasible. Farmers continue to spend a great deal to curb potential infestations.
People affected by the plant have made numerous efforts to solve the kudzu problem, but there are no easy answers. Extensive use of herbicides creates its own set of problems, including killing native plants and animal populations that kudzu eradication should bolster. The Mississippi Kudzu Coalition has worked to utilize state and federal grants to provide education to the public about kudzu and control methods and have set a goal of eradicating 90 percent of the kudzu in North Mississippi. Other proposals would utilize kudzu as a source for ethanol and for folk medicines. Cookbooks have suggested using kudzu for salad greens and in kudzu flower wine. Basket makers and other folk artists have found their own uses for the vine. There is certainly more than enough to go around, and until other solutions to the kudzu problem are found, it will remain “the plant that ate the South.”
- Kerry Britton, David Orr, and Jianghua Sun, Invasive Plants of the Eastern United States (2002)
- Amanda Harris, Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters (2015)
- Mississippi State University Extension Service website, http://msucares.com
- Max Shores, The Amazing Story of Kudzu (DVD 1996)
- US Department of Agriculture, National Forest Service website, www.fs.usda.gov/mississippi
- Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein, Plant Explorer, David Fairchild (1963)