What is Kudzu?

Written by Heather Hall
Published: March 24, 2023
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An Overview

Kudzu is a fast-growing vine native to parts of Asia. It was introduced to the United States in 1876 as an ornamental plant and for erosion control but quickly became invasive due to its ability to spread rapidly. Kudzu can grow up to one foot per day, using trees and other plants for support. The leaves are large, alternate, and lobed with fuzzy hairs on the underside. Its root system is deep and aggressive, which helps it thrive in many environments. It produces purple flowers from June through October that later form seed pods containing three hard seeds each. These pods burst open when they mature, releasing hundreds of seeds into the environment and allowing kudzu populations to expand even further. Kudzu has become a nuisance in many areas due to its prolific growth rate. However, some efforts have been made to control or manage this species’ population growth by creating grazing programs and utilizing herbicides or mechanical removal methods such as mowing or cutting back kudzu vines.

Kudzu a fast-growing invasive vine

Kudzu is a fast-growing invasive vine. Attempts to manage it include razing programs, herbicides, mowing, and cutting back.

©Roberto Michel/Shutterstock.com

Description

Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) is a large, leafy, semi-woody vining plant in the Fabaceae family. It is often mistaken for poison ivy due to its hairy stems and its ability to twine and climb. The vines can grow up to 60 feet in one season and even up to a foot a day during the summer. Its roots are very starchy and can reach depths of 12 feet in older patches, and can weigh up to 300 pounds.

Kudzu is common in the southern United States and can grow in a variety of soils. It tends to thrive best with deep, loamy soils but can still survive in sandier or clay-heavy areas. Its success in degraded soils may be connected to its relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Kudzu is a type of vine that grows outward and downward from a root crown located at the surface of the soil. A single acre of land can contain tens of thousands of plants. the vines can form thick mats of up to 8 feet. The vines twine themselves around objects no bigger than 8 inches in diameter. They will die back to the root crown after their first frost. Climbing vines can become very large, developing growth rings and rough bark, but they, too, will be killed by the first frost.

Kudzu produces fragrant, pealike purple flowers between the months of July and September. These blossoms are generally seen on vines that grow upward upon other objects, as vines seldom flower when growing along the ground. Afterward, hairy seed pods appear, though the production and viability of these seeds can differ. They mature on the vines from October to November. It is unknown how long they stay in the soil as their coats are very tough, but it is assumed they could remain there for multiple years before germinating.

Where Does it Come From?

Kudzu is a fast-growing, invasive Asian vine that has been wreaking havoc in the southeastern United States since it was first introduced in 1876. It originates from Japan and China, where it was used for centuries as an edible food source and for its medicinal properties. In 1876, kudzu was brought to the United States from Japan by the US Department of Agriculture at an agricultural fair in Philadelphia. Kudzu quickly became popular due to its ability to prevent soil erosion, provide feed for livestock, and create shade on hot summer days.

However, kudzu also had unintended consequences. This aggressive plant can grow up to sixty feet per season and outcompete surrounding vegetation creating monocultures of densely tangled vines that choke out other plants, including trees. As a result of these environmental impacts, efforts are underway across many states in the southeast US to control or eradicate kudzu infestations through chemical treatments such as herbicides or mechanical methods like mowing or burning affected areas.

The Benefits

Kudzu is a fast-growing species, and its popularity as an ornamental plant quickly spread across the country. It now grows in many parts of North America, particularly in the southeastern United States. Kudzu has become a major problem due to its rapid growth and ability to smother other plants; however, some benefits can be gained from this often-maligned weed.

Kudzu is used medicinally to treat cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and liver damage. Some people believe that it contains powerful antioxidants to protect against cell damage. They are researching its potential anti-inflammatory properties that could benefit those with arthritis or other inflammatory diseases.

In addition, kudzu’s roots contain considerable amounts of starch, which can be processed into usable energy sources such as ethanol fuel or bioplastics. The leaves of kudzu are edible too. They have a mild sweet taste when cooked, which makes them popular ingredients in Asian cuisine, such as stir fry dishes and soups. Finally, kudzu provides habitat for birds and small mammals due to its thick foliage cover along roadsides throughout much of the United States.

Potential Harms

Kudzu is thought to have a negative influence on the environment. Reports and observations have suggested that its thick covering can reduce the presence of native plants. In addition, it can be dangerous for utility and railroad companies, as it can grow over poles and tracks. This can take up a lot of time and money, particularly in national parks and other government-owned areas.

Kudzu is a nitrogen-fixing plant that can have a major impact on nitrogen cycling, water quality, soil fertility, and biodiversity. It is also an intermediate to a high producer of isoprene, which can increase ozone and smog levels when compared to other plants in the area. This is particularly noticeable during hot and dry times of the year.

Kudzu is known to be a host for agricultural diseases and insects, such as the Kudzu Bug and the Asian Soybean Rust. The Kudzu Bug was first observed in 2009. However, it has since spread quickly across the southeast. This bug feeds on sap from kudzu and other plants, including soybeans, causing an average 18% decrease in soybean yield, although there have been reports of up to 47% losses by some farmers. The Kudzu Bug is also a nuisance around homes and buildings, emitting a bad smell. It has been noted that Kudzu bugs do damage to kudzu and reduce its climbing ability, but this has been insufficient to control the plant’s growth.

As Animal Food

Kudzu makes nutritious food for animals, like livestock and poultry. It is usually high in protein and has a high percentage of digestible nutrients. Its quality can depend on how it is taken care of and what season it is, but it is still typically quite delicious for animals. Also, the forage can last until the frost comes and sometimes can even be eaten for a short time after that.

Kudzu has limited use as a forage plant due to its low to moderate yields, which is around 2-4 tons of dry weight per acre in one year. It is also challenging to harvest and bale up because of its vining growth habit. Two cuttings of hay can be taken each year, the first in late June or early July and the second right before frost. However, the hay must be kept under shelter for protection after it is baled. Kudzu can also be harvested for silage, but it is light and hard to pack.

In some parts of Alabama, farmers still collect kudzu from fields that have been specifically managed for this purpose. This is especially done during times of drought. The plant has a deep root system that allows it to access moisture when other vegetation cannot.

Animals such as goats, sheep, and deer enjoy eating kudzu, but if they feed on the plant too frequently, then it will be destroyed in a few years. Thus, it is not suitable for grazing purposes beyond a short period of time. It is mainly found in forests, near roads, and areas where livestock are not able to reach. The effects of other animals on kudzu are mostly unknown.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/TravisPhotoWorks


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About the Author

Heather Hall is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on plants and animals. Heather has been writing and editing since 2012 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, Heather enjoys hiking, gardening, and trail running through the mountains with her dogs.

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