Kudzu: The lovable pest that invaded the South

July 10, 2006

By Kathleen Dayton, Staff Writer

Developers beware: the vine that ate the South could have its pesky roots imbedded somewhere on that high-dollar piece of Lowcountry property you’re about to buy, or may already have crept its way in amongst your valuable oaks and palmettos.

If so, you’re in for a wild ride with herbicides trying to get rid of it.

Kudzu, also known by the scientific name Pueraria montana, is so much a part of the South that it can inevitably be spotted along most highways and railways, in both rural and urban areas.

While the purple flowers of this grape-like vine may smell heavenly, woe to the landowner who discovers this invasive, Asian-born creeper settling into the landscape like a Godzilla of the vegetation kingdom.

“It can be an extreme detriment to a land investment over time if it’s not addressed,” said Matt Nespeca, a project director for the South Carolina Nature Conservancy. “A plant like kudzu can grow faster than a land owner’s money. It’s taking land from you as it sits. If you don’t address it when it’s a small problem, it can become a big problem. It can suck up a lot of property.”

In spite of its familiar presence in the Lowcountry, experts say kudzu is not as much of a problem here as it is in the Upstate, where whole hillsides are cloaked with the curling vines.

The plant was widely used to curb erosion in the 1930s and now covers between 4 million and 7 million acres in the southeastern United States.

“Here on the coast, we have what I consider spotty problems with it,” said Lou Ehinger, a forester for South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. “It’s more prevalent in the Upstate and I know the same is true in Georgia. It’s a problem because it’s so aggressive that when it gets established, it just takes over an area.”

Root of the problem

The utility company spends about $8 million annually on vegetation management, which includes controlling kudzu patches, Ehinger said. Nationally, the country spends about $2 billion annually on vegetation management.

Kudzu is one plant pest that the United States might not have cultivated had it not been for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, where the Japanese government introduced the plant as an ornamental vine. It was later grown as a forage crop in addition to being used for erosion control.

By 1946 the vine was established on more than 3 million acres of erosion-prone land in the South. A decade later, the plant was out of control, climbing power lines, trees, shrubs, fences and anything it its path, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to label it a noxious weed in 1970.

“When it was brought to control erosion, they just planted it everywhere,” Nespeca said. “For the forest industry, kudzu can be a big detriment … because it can damage their investment.”

Kudzu can take five to seven years to control and eradication methods can cost more than $1,000 per acre.

“Every year you’re going to be spending money on that kudzu patch,” Nespeca said. “It needs to be part of the due diligence process when people are scouting for properties.”

Take back the land

In Spartanburg, kudzu’s attack on a planting of Yoshino cherry trees set the Spartanburg Men’s Garden Club on a mission and spawned the Coalition To Control Kudzu Without Herbicides.

“Our city had installed over 2,000 ornamental trees in conjunction with a beautification project and they were being devoured by kudzu coming from a railroad track,” said Barbara Daniels, a coalition volunteer and master gardener. “In urban areas, kudzu is often associated with railroads because when the railroads were built, they used kudzu to mitigate erosion.”

At least one Spartanburg business has also had a serious run-in with kudzu. The Beacon Restaurant, a landmark diner in the town, had an unruly patch of kudzu escaping its property and threatening neighbors.

“The Beacon was one of the first places to come to us,” Daniels said. “Kudzu just overtook the hill behind them and was encroaching in that neighborhood.”

Lou Adams, a retired research physicist, garden club member and a volunteer with the coalition, said the group has been experimenting with various methods of eradicating kudzu without using herbicides. Covering the vines with plastic sheeting is one technique, and coalition volunteers also wage war on the plant by digging up root crowns by hand. Without the crown portion of the root, the plant will die.

“The Beacon restaurant paid for the materials we used and we trained their people to use our methods,” Adams said. “They had been trying to poison kudzu and it hadn’t worked. It was going over a fence and onto a public sidewalk and people complained. As a public relations matter, the business wanted to clean up their property so it would not be guilty of being a nuisance.”

The Beacon’s plight was rare, according to experts who study the region’s invasive plants. In the Lowcountry, such plants include kudzu, privet, beach vitex and aquatic weeds.

“To my knowledge, they don’t hit businesses or government agencies as hard financially as they could,” said Colette Degarady, a field ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.

Because kudzu and other plant pests aren’t hitting financial pockets in a major way, conservation groups are having a harder time promoting the monitoring and eradication of the pesky species, she said.

“One area that is impacted more than others, in my opinion, is the game industry,” Degarady said. “Waterfowl hunters and fishermen probably spend more money trying to keep their ponds clear of alligator weed and water hyacinth so that they can attract the right wildlife.”

A kudzu fondness

In the South, there are those who might even venture a fondness for kudzu, which has draped itself over much of Southern folklore for as long as the vine has been hanging around. The plant has inspired kudzu clubs, kudzu songs and even kudzu recipes, including kudzu fried chicken, deep-fried kudzu leaves and kudzu wine.

Other benefits of the plant turned up last year at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where researchers reported on an herbal extract from kudzu and its ability to curb excessive alcohol consumption. The plant had been used for that purpose in China since 600 A.D.

Kathleen Dayton is a staff writer for the Business Journal. E-mail her at kdayton@charlestonbusiness.com.

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