Why Is There So Much Kudzu In The South?

Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata)
© Scott Ehardt / public domain

Written by Heather Hall

Updated: May 15, 2023

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What Is It?

Kudzu is a large, woody vine native to Asia. It has dark green leaves that are usually about three-lobed, and its stems can reach up to one inch in diameter. In the summertime, kudzu produces fragrant purple flowers and large bean-like seed pods. The plant grows rapidly, often reaching over 60 feet in length within a single growing season.

Kudzu also spreads quickly. It can climb trees or even other structures with ease and can create dense mats of foliage on the ground, which prevents other plants from growing beneath it. This ability to spread so quickly has made it an invasive species in many parts of the world, particularly regions of the southern United States where conditions are favorable for its growth.

Where Did It Come From?

Kudzu is a climbing, coiling, and trailing vine native to much of East Asia. It was first introduced to the United States at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant. This introduction sparked its eventual spread across the southeastern United States and beyond.

Due to its fast-growing nature and ability to smother other plants with thick mats of foliage, kudzu quickly became popular for erosion control on hillsides and along roadsides. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service even promoted it heavily as part of their efforts during the Great Depression, offering farmers free plants if they agreed to cultivate them on their land with hopes that it would help stop soil erosion due to deforestation caused by farming practices of that time period.

Unfortunately, kudzu’s ability also made it difficult for local flora or fauna – including trees – to compete for resources when faced with such prolific growth rates from this invasive species, eventually leading many areas in the south to be overrun by kudzu completely, hence why there is so much kudzu today throughout parts of southern U.S. states like Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, where it has become pervasive within certain ecosystems over time due mainly to human intervention.

Why It Loves The South

Kudzu has become a dominant plant in the southern United States. It grows prolifically in 32 U.S. states and is considered an invasive weed. The warm temperatures and plenty of rain have provided perfect conditions for this plant to thrive. Kudzu grows quickly. In fact, it can grow up to one foot per day! This rapid growth allows it to overtake other plants, trees, and even buildings rapidly. Kudzu’s thick vines also make it difficult for sunlight to reach other plants on the ground below them. As such, many native species are unable to compete with the kudzu’s fast-growing presence in these regions. In addition, kudzu requires very little maintenance or care. Its rhizomes simply spread out from year to year without needing replanting each time like most other crops would need.

Due to its rampant growth, kudzu is considered an invasive species by some states throughout the south, such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, just to name a few. These states have put regulations on how this plant may be used or handled in order to protect their ecosystems from becoming overrun by kudzu overgrowth.

Kudzu vine covering wall

Kudzu can grow up to one foot per day in warm temperatures in U.S. states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

©SATYAJIT MISRA/Shutterstock.com

Ecological Effects

Kudzu has had a devastating impact on the environment and surrounding ecology of the Southern United States. The plant is able to grow quickly, up to a foot per day, and can easily overtake other plants in an area. This means that it crowds out other native species, reducing biodiversity. Kudzu also grows over trees, blocking sunlight needed for photosynthesis and causing them to die off. It also prevents small animals from accessing food sources by taking away their habitat and disrupting their ecosystems. Additionally, kudzu’s quick growth rate makes it difficult to control – it can spread aggressively even when managed with herbicides or mowing due to its large root system. As such, this invasive species continues to cause ecological damage in the south despite ongoing efforts at management and removal.

Where Else Does It Grow?

Kudzu is an invasive species in many countries around the world. It has been spotted in Australia and New Zealand, as well as some parts of Europe, Asia, and South America. It typically grows in warm, moist climates with long growing seasons and can spread rapidly if left unchecked.

In addition to the south, kudzu can be found in other parts of the world, such as China and Japan. While it may look pretty when it’s flowering or climbing over trees and buildings during summer months, its effects on ecosystems are drastic. In these places where it has been introduced or escaped into wild areas, it can cause severe environmental damage by smothering native plants and wildlife habitats.

In order to get rid of kudzu in these countries, various methods have been used, such as manual removal (pulling out the roots or cutting down the vines), chemical control (herbicides), and biological control (insects that feed on kudzu). Some research is also being done into using goats to eat away at Kudzu patches and thus reduce their spread. Many communities are coming together to find ways to manage this invasive species and take back their local environment from its clutches.

Can We Get Rid Of It?

In order to get rid of kudzu, the government is taking a multifaceted approach. Regulations have been put in place to discourage people from planting and distributing it, as well as cutting down existing stands. Some states are even offering incentive programs for landowners who remove it from their property. On a larger scale, the government has launched an initiative to use herbicides like glyphosate and triclopyr to spray large areas with Kudzu infestations in an effort to eradicate the plant.

Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Agricultural Service has been researching the use of the fungus Myrothecium verrucaria as an environmentally friendly herbicide to get rid of kudzu. A spray made from M. verrucaria is effective in a variety of conditions, does not harm most other plants, and works fast enough that it starts to show results by the afternoon. At first, the herbicide created other toxic substances as a by-product, but the ARS discovered that cultivating the fungus in a liquid medium prevents this from happening.

These efforts have had varying levels of success so far, but overall there seems to be progress being made in reducing the spread of this invasive species throughout southern regions of North America.

Is It Useful In Any Way?

Kudzu has been used for erosion control and soil enhancement. As a legume, it increases soil nitrogen via a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Its deep taproots also transfer minerals from subsoil to topsoil, improving it. In the deforested central Amazon Basin in Brazil, it has been used to improve the soil in clay, freeing more water for plants than before deforestation.

There have been many experiments using kudzu as a forage for grazing animals. While it is highly nutritious and tasty to livestock, it is difficult to bale because of the tangled vines. It also does yield a large quantity of hay, despite its quick growth rate.

Kudzu fiber has long been used for basketry and art. Its long runners and larger vines make outstanding weaving material. Used either green or split and dried, then rehydrated with hot water. Both traditional and contemporary basketry artists use kudzu.

Also, people do eat the roots of kudzu for starch. Kudzu root has a starchy texture and is often ground into a flour-like powder that can be used to make noodles or other foods. It’s also known as “kuzu” in Japan and is commonly used to thicken sauces and soups. In some cases, it’s even been boiled down into a syrup that can be added to sweetened drinks like tea.

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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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