As we are a few days from Halloween and thus well into the Scary Season, I write of a vine of legendary horror. No, it isn’t Audrey II, the alien plant that devours people, but it’s close. It is kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South! <cue ominous chords>
Okay, that’s slightly overdramatic, but you can safely add it to the list of imports that “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Like many inspired catastrophes of good intention, importing this rampant leguminous vine from Asia was intended to be an easy fix for another human-caused calamity, soil erosion. And it certainly covers up the gullies and bare slopes like nobody’s business. The problem is, kudzu isn’t that great at holding soil. True, its vines lengthen at the stunning rate of a foot per day, but the thick taproots don’t spread wide and fine to hold soil as those of grass might. Once rainwater collects under the vines, there is little to keep the soil from washing away.
The climate in the South is substantially different than that of Japan, where shorter growing seasons and colder winters moderates the growth of the vine. In the land of hot summers and mild winters, the plant turns invasive, flowing over fields, over trees, over buildings…anywhere a vine can go. Kudzu crowding vines deprive everything beneath them of sunlight, killing forb, grass, shrub and tree.
Kudzu has been put to various uses in an effort to make a positive out of such an overwhelming negative. The leaves make a highly digestible cattle forage. Some people make compost; others craft baskets or wreaths from the vines. But the usage of kudzu is negligible compared to the sheer productivity of the plants. This menace has covered millions of acres across the Southeast, and as far north as Nova Scotia and westward to the Pacific coast.
Apart from seeing blankets of the weed, covering field and forest, from the safety of the family truck, my first experience with kudzu came when I was eight or nine. My Mom and I tramped through a pine stand one night, trying to connect with some foxhounds that had strayed from the pack. We lit the forest floor with wheat lamps (a powerful light used by miners and coon hunters alike) to guard against entanglement or envenomation. As we progressed, I gradually noticed a change in the vegetation around me. There were fewer briers, and most of the abundant saplings were dead and leafless. Then, our lights picked what appeared to be a fuzzy wall fifty yards ahead, stretching in either direction as far as our lights would shine. We looked up and saw the unnerving ceiling of the same gray-brown material, held up by dead pine trees like tent poles.
We reached the wall of vine and dead leaves, and I looked to Ma to see what to do. The vine tangle stood between us and the truck, and there was no telling how far we’d have to follow this dead barrier before we struck another open trail. Finally, she put down her light and reached into the wall, pushing the vines apart just enough to form a tunnel. She directed me to climb up into it and continue to dig through. I remember the dead mass supporting my weight and being thick enough that I was completely encased in dry leaves before reaching the first green ones. I broke through to the open air and tumbled out the other side before turning and helping Ma crawl through. With the green wall at our backs, we waded through a smothered field before reaching the dirt road.
My encounter with the backside of kudzu occurred a couple of weeks ago when I visited a newly-purchased hunting property. It had many of the common invasives – Chinaberry, stiltgrass, tree-of-heaven, sericea, and so on – but by far the most visible issues were the mounds of kudzu, topping the smaller trees and coiling upwards towards the tallest oaks. I think the landowner is aware that the land he bought is a “fixer-upper.” I’ll tell him the options: burning or mowing to reclaim conquered territory, followed by herbicide to strike at the roots, the only way to permanently kill this scourge. But I’ll warn him to be prepared for a multi-year campaign. And I won’t say what I’m thinking: Better you than me.