With its bright green leaves, pretty flowers, and climbing vines, it’s hard to believe that the beautiful kudzu is such a polarizing figure in the horticultural world.
Most herald the plant as a near-indestructible weed and, thus, a major nuisance. Others, however, swear by its benefits.
So, why is kudzu so controversial? Keep reading to find out!
Origins of Kudzu
Kudzu is the name given to a group of climbing deciduous perennial vines native to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Sometimes called Japanese or Chinese arrowroot, this weed was first introduced to the United States from Japan in 1876.
Its popularity quickly spread around the Dust Bowl era, especially among farmers, to prevent erosion.
Because of its ground cover power, the weed was marketed as a “miracle vine” that would revive the farms and fields of the south.
However, no one estimated how quickly the plant would take over the ecosystem. Kudzu covers its growth area very densely, like a blanket of greenery over the buildings and trees.
While the appearance is striking, the effect of this dense cover is very detrimental.
So, how did kudzu go from exotic new species to invasive weed?
What Are Invasive Species?
Invasive species refers to species introduced to an environment rather than naturally occurring within it and end up overpopulating.
Typically, this causes harm to the ecosystem. Invasive species compete for resources and space or will prey upon other organisms endemic to the area and crucial to its ecology.
While it is possible for invasive species to be naturally occurring as a response to changes in their own environment, more often than not, humans have introduced invasive species.
In kudzu’s case, it was first gifted in the late 19th century as a garden plant but quickly became one of the most widespread invasive species in the country.
This has earned the weed a negative reputation and the nickname “the vine that ate the South.”
Negative Impacts of Kudzu
Kudzu doesn’t have this level of notoriety for no reason. As it spreads, the weed’s leaves impacted ecosystems in its wake.
One of the reasons this weed is so hard to control is the speed at which it adapts to environmental changes.
Over time, it has become shade tolerant and can survive in very dark environments where little else can.
It can survive and even thrive in hot sun, dry air, and rocky soil. You can even find the weed growing in piles of dirt left at construction sites.
Unfortunately, the environments kudzu take over don’t adapt quite as quickly.
Because it smothers the other plants and organisms in its wake, the damage left behind is called a “kudzu desert” or “vine barren.”
Once established, these areas are void of resources and organisms aside from this weed.
Multiple kudzu vines can grow from a single crown root, sometimes even as many as thirty. As such, this weed grows in mats, like a blanket of super dense green leaves covering the area completely.
These mats block out sunlight almost entirely, to the detriment of whatever is underneath the bed of weeds.
In addition, the dense kudzu mats also become very heavy and have been known to topple trees and even small structures.
Because this weed negatively impacts the ecosystem and monopolizes resources, it tends to leave dead plant matter or “leaf litter” behind.
As leaf litter decomposes and changes, it lessons the carbon sequestration ability of the soil below, thus letting carbon dioxide linger in the air.
Increases in carbon dioxide or decreases in nature’s ability to sequester carbon contribute to and fuel climate change.
Competition with Native Species
An ecosystem is a community or network of organisms that each play a specific part in keeping that ecosystem healthy.
Those organisms can be referred to as native species – endemic to the area and key parts of the function of the ecosystem.
When kudzu invades these ecosystems as a weed, it forces native species to compete for resources, and they ultimately lose the fight.
With a crucial part of the ecosystem now depleted or gone completely, the ecosystem itself starts to break down.
Because kudzu is not a part of these ecosystems, they have no natural predators within them and will continue to grow rapidly.
Benefits of Kudzu
However, kudzu isn’t all bad. Far from it, in fact! Over the years, its reputation as an evil weed has taken on its mythos.
Yes, this weed does grow rapidly and often leaves damaged ecosystems behind. But it’s not exactly something from Little Shop of Horrors either.
As initially intended, this weed benefits humans and the natural world.
One of the main reasons for kudzu’s proliferation across the southern United States is its attractive ability to act as a cover plant and prevent soil erosion.
Because of its mat-like appearance, it keeps the soil from eroding.
The kudzu vine’s leaves, flowers, and roots can all be eaten. As far as vines go, they are fairly high in protein and is relatively nutritious feed for livestock.
In eastern Asia, the weed is harvested as starch and is used in various recipes, primarily noodles. It is even classed as a food crop in different nations worldwide.
The flowers lend themselves well to jellies and jams, having a nice floral taste.
The most popular use of kudzu in the modern day is in herbal medicine, often made into teas and tinctures.
It has been used to help manage alcohol-related problems and other minor illnesses like headaches or nausea.
Recent research has suggested that this weed might be a better source of ethanol (also known as kudzunol) than corn.
As an extremely fast-growing plant, it has high chlorophyll and cellulosic sugar concentrations, which are necessary in creating plant-based biofuel.
In Japan and China, kudzu fiber, also called kudzu-fu or the more contemporary ko-hemp, has been used for thousands of years as a textile material.
The weed is mowed, fermented, and dried before spinning or weft into a super strong fiber. It can then be dyed for ornamental purposes.
Historically, kudzu-fu has been used to make baskets, mats, shoes, clothes, wallpaper, yarn, and even armor in the Japanese Edo period.
How To Manage Kudzu in Your Yard
Because of kudzu’s propagation means and root system, intentional and well-researched control methods are crucial for managing the spread.
Typically, some combination of multiple avenues is the best way forward.
Chemical and Mechanical
Herbicides are one route to go if you’re dealing with a kudzu problem. However, the herbicide will take time and multiple applications to be effective.
Sometimes, the herbicide can take up to ten years to eradicate the weed.
But, combining herbicides with mechanical control methods can help speed up the process.
For mowing to be effective, you need to destroy the portion of the plant above ground, remove any leftover plant matter, and then dig up the crown root.
Because chemical controls are often complicated or ineffective, many people resort to cultural controls to manage their kudzu problem.
While farmers often face the plight of this weed on their land, they also incidentally have the best cultural control on hand: cattle.
Though it poses many challenges, this weed is ultimately harmless when ingested. As such, it’s safe to graze!
In particular, goats and pigs love this weed and can easily mow it down.
Another option for cultural control is controlled pest release.
This can be a dangerous game if you have many crops or ornamental plants in the area, as pests can potentially destroy those plants.
But leaf-feeding beetles are a great option for this method of biological control.
Similarly, bacterial blights and fungi are also effective methods of biologically managing kudzu.
Are there any species you can plant to combat kudzu?
Unfortunately, the only plant species proven to compete with kudzu successfully are also invasive species.
However, these plants are mostly less impactful to the surrounding environment than this weed, such as Chinese privet.
Chinese privet isn’t nearly as vigorous as this weed. Therefore, they are less likely to outcompete endemic or native species.
Why is kudzu so powerful?
There are two main reasons why kudzu is so successful and overwhelming: underground root systems and adaptation.
This weed has a deep and complex underground root system, making it very difficult to address the problem above ground.
Kudzu grows so fast that if you leave the root system intact below ground in an attempt to mow it down, it will regenerate in the blink of an eye.
The other main factor contributing to this weed’s unique ability to thrive is its rapid adaptation.
This weed is a highly adaptable weed that becomes accustomed to a new environment quickly and thoroughly.
Attempts to starve the weed out or drown it in the shade will not work because it has adapted to survive those conditions.
Is it a weed?
A weed is defined as a plant growing somewhere it’s not wanted. So in many instances, yes, kudzu is a weed!
However, it isn’t exclusively a weed. The categorization of weeds isn’t static, so depending on the context, this weed sometimes breaks away from the definition.
When first introduced to the United States, it wasn’t a weed. It had several uses and was grown intentionally.
However, over time, kudzu spread to places where it wasn’t intended to grow, thus making it a weed.
The Infamous Kudzu
Whether you deem it an invasive weed or a medical marvel, kudzu has an (in)famous presence in the natural world.
However, its reputation as “the vine that ate the South” is undeniable. Are goats our saviors from this lawn leech? Only time will tell!
If you feel like you need to learn more about these pesky garden tenants, check out our weeds page to learn all about different weed varieties, treatment options, and surprising information.
- About the Author
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Leah is a writer, editor, and content manager with Minneopa Orchards and holds a master’s degree in English.
She grew up in the south and enjoyed long growing seasons spent in her father’s lush vegetable garden. Buying produce from the store was unheard of in her house!
As such, Leah enjoys writing about gardening and sharing her knowledge and experiences with others.
Leah can be reached at email@example.com