How to Control Kudzu, the Vine
That Ate the South

Copyright 2011 McGroarty Enterprises Inc.

Kudzu control?  While travelling through the southern United States, it's hard to miss seeing the lush green vines that sprawl throughout fields, drape luxuriously over trees and fences, and even over abandoned buildings. This is the aggressive kudzu vine and it has become a big problem.

The kudzu vine is not native to this country. A native of China and Japan, kudzu vine was introduced to the United States in 1876 during the Centennial Exposition that was held in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation's 100th birthday. To celebrate the centennial, the Japanese government created a beautiful garden exhibit filled with native Japanese plants, including kudzu. Unaware of its potential as an invasive plant, American gardeners soon began to grow kudzu for its attractive glossy foliage and heavily-scented blossoms similar to wisteria.  Now, years later many people are looking for a way to control Kudzu.

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Unfortunately, the spread of the invasive kudzu vine wasn't limited to a few flower gardens. In the 1920s, owners of a plant nursery in Chipley Florida noticed that their goats and cows enjoyed eating kudzu, often passing up other tasty plants in favor of kudzu. Seeing this as a money-making crop, kudzu vine was soon being marketed as livestock fodder and the vines were being sent across the country through the mail. 

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If that wasn't bad enough, kudzu vine was spread even further through government programs during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The newly formed Soil Conservation Service saw kudzu as a miracle vine that could control erosion, and hundreds of young men were employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant kudzu vine for erosion control. During the 1940s kudzu was spread even further as farmers were paid the princely sum of eight dollars per acre to plant fields of kudzu vine.

It wasn't until 1953 that kudzu vine was recognized for the invasive pest weed it is, and the Department of Agriculture finally removed it from its list of acceptable cover crops. But by then the damage was done and kudzu continues to spread, reaching as far north as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. There are now two million acres of kudzu vine growing across the South.

Kudzu vine is a semi-woody perennial vine in the same family as peas and beans. As a legume, kudzu helps fix nitrogen in the soil, but its threat to the environment far outweighs its benefits. Kudzu kills trees and other plants by smothering and choking them with its fast-growing vines, and as the heavy vines engulf trees or shrubs their weight can actually break or uproot trees. 

A kudzu vine can grow as much as a foot per day and sixty feet during a growing season. The roots of kudzu are large and fleshy, with a tap root that can be more than seven inches in diameter and more than six feet long. As many as thirty vines will spread from one kudzu root crown. The roots of an established kudzu vine can weigh as much as 400 pounds, making kudzu difficult to eradicate by digging it up. In addition, the plants will spread by sending out runners, and vines can take root wherever a node touches the ground. Kudzu vine also produces seedpods containing three to ten seeds, but it can take several years for kudzu seeds to germinate and grow.

In its native environment, kudzu is kept in check by insects that eat the vines. However, these insects were not imported to the U.S. along with the vines. Scientists are currently looking for ways to control kudzu but the plant is resistant to many herbicides, and some herbicides only encourage it to grow better. There are ways to keep kudzu vine in control somewhat, but persistence is necessary. Even when using a strong herbicide such as RoundUp, it can take at least four and as many as ten years of repeated treatments to kill a kudzu vine. Apply herbicides when the vines are actively growing. The kudzu vine and foliage do not actively grow in the winter and are killed off by a frost. But the plant will continue to grow from the sturdy roots in the spring, and this is a good time to begin the process of eradicating kudzu.

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Mechanical means of controlling kudzu are often more effective than herbicides, but they are more time consuming. Vines can be mowed down just above ground level every month or two during the growing season. Repeated cutting of the vines will exhaust the plant and it will eventually give up. But when using this method of kudzu control, all of the plant material must be removed to prevent the vines from taking root and regrowing. The cut vines can be fed to livestock, burned completely, or sealed within plastic bags and buried in a landfill.

Kudzu can be kept in control if goats or cattle are allowed to graze on it. Constant grazing will eventually weaken the plants and rid an area of kudzu. If a kudzu-covered field is intended to be used for perennial fodder, the cattle must occasionally be relocated to another area to allow the kudzu vines to grow back. 

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 Kudzu vine isn't all bad news. It does have some redeeming qualities. In addition to making excellent fodder for cattle and goats, the plant also controls erosion. The rubbery vines can be used for basket weaving, and basket makers can find an almost endless supply of this raw material for their craft. Fiber from kudzu vine is referred to as ko-kemp and it can be used to make paper and cloth. 

Kudzu vine may have become a permanent fixture in the Southern landscape. We can learn to keep it in control but we may never be completely rid of it. We may have to learn to live with kudzu, but make sure to keep the windows closed at night so the vines don't come into the house.

by Michael J. McGroarty
Copyright 2011