“The Vine That Ate the South” Heads North
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Say the word “kudzu” to anyone from the South and they’ll probably know what you’re talking about. That’s because in states like Georgia and Alabama the invasive vine known as kudzu covers roadsides, chokes forests, brings down power lines, and blankets entire buildings. It’s made its way into country songs, becoming a metaphor for clingy love.
Kudzu’s twined itself into Southern culture, but it’s a big environmental headache, causing crop and property damage and loss of biodiversity. And now the vine’s coming north.
It’s even made it to northeast Ohio, where people didn’t expect it would survive the harsh winters. I went to check out one rogue patch in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, near Lake Erie.
In this rundown urban lot, the vine has worked its way up the power line and along the fencing and onto the nearby business and over the trees clear to people’s homes. Kudzu’s all over here — just a sea of green in this gravel parking lot.
Quite an eyeful. Amy Stone, with the Ohio State University Extension invasive species team, said this spot and others like it worry her because kudzu’s an aggressive, invasive, non-native species that’s caused a lot of grief down South. “It’s also known as the ‘vine that swallowed the South,’ or the ‘vine that ate the South.’ And so just imagine this kind of on steroids everywhere,” she said.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure why the vine is extending its northern reach, but many attribute it to warmer winters from climate change. “We thought maybe it wouldn’t be hardy here,” said Stone. But due to changing weather conditions and a longer growing season, she said we may be able to see flowering and seeding of the vine, which would spread it even faster.
Kudzu can grow a foot a day — up to 60 feet a season. It throws down roots everywhere it can, working its way into cracks and crevices on buildings, even collapsing whole barns and buckling power lines. Ohio recently joined 14 other states in adding kudzu to the state’s noxious weed list. Stone said all the Southern states have it and it’s working its way up north. “I think there’s even been some established sites in Maine, up the East Coast and all the way through the Midwest,” she said.
Funny thing is, farmers were told to plant kudzu back in the ’30s to control erosion. We learned quickly this was bad advice, said Stone. “What we found out is there’s just no stopping kudzu,” she said. It’s got a pretty purple flower and was originally brought over from Asia as an ornamental. People still see it and coo, take a cutting, and unknowingly unleash the beast.
At the kudzu patch in the Cleveland parking lot, Stone and I wade into the kudzu to check out the vine’s progression. Below the sea of green, bits of purple pop up — the flower. And pollinators have been busy — we find furry seed pods all over.
This is not good. Now the vine can be spread not only by ground but by wind or animal. “Wherever it drops off would be another start of kudzu,” said Stone.
And with kudzu comes problems. It drives out native plants, swallows trees whole and kills them, causes structural damage, and is bad for farmers.
Kudzu brings kudzu bugs, which also like to eat soybeans, and the vine plays host to the crop disease soybean rust.
As we were milling around, a neighbor came over, introduced himself as George Nelson, and asked me a good question, “Well, are you gonna have them clean it up?”
Once kudzu’s got a foothold in a place, it takes a whole lot of money and perseverance to clean it up. Stone said herbicides are the most effective way to take down the vine. Goats have also been tried as a means of control. “If you don’t get every little piece of it, it will be back,” said Stone.
But to the man’s point, who is going to clean this up?
Turns out someone offered, way back when kudzu was first discovered here in early 2000. “Through our conservation outreach program, I would have done it and I still would,” said Jim Bissell, a botanist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He estimates it’d take nearly $10,000 to clean this up.
Problem is, Bissell couldn’t find a taker.
Property owners didn’t want to get their hands dirty, so he let it drop.
When I gave him a site update, though, and told him about the seed pods, it got his attention. “They didn’t have seed pods when I looked at it, so that could be a change already,” he said, “so that’s kind of frightening.”
To make a long story short, Bissell is now reviving efforts to get this spot cleaned up, but the road ahead is all the more weedy.
QUEST Ohio’s Jean O’Malley contributed to the reporting of this story.
Watch kudzu grow (video by producer Rachel Verdugo):