Kudzu, the Good Plant Gone Bad

October 05, 2017

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Photographer: Patti Weeks
Summary Author: Patti Weeks 

Kudzu (of the genus Pueraria) is an iconic image of the southeastern United States landscape. It's a non-native climbing vine from Asia known for its fast growth and propensity to blanket everything in its path. Once established in the countryside, it can cover fences, power lines, abandoned buildings, and smother entire trees. It kills the flora it engulfs by heavy shading.

Kudzu was introduced to America at the Japanese pavilion in the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Shortly after the Fair, it became an ornamental and shading plant for porches and courtyards of southern homes. Then, with government support, it was used in the 1930s by farmers as erosion control and livestock feed. It was also planted by railroad and highway developers to prevent erosion on hillsides. Left unattended, the hearty kudzu continued to creep further into the nearby countryside—and it is still growing today. Kudzu eventually became more of a scourge than an asset and is now classified as a noxious weed in 13 states.

Kudzu is difficult to control with its deep root system and its growth of up to a foot (30 cm) a day. A single older root can be as deep as 12 feet (3.7 m) and weigh up to 300 pounds. Vines grow in all directions and as they spread along the soil they will form new root crowns as independent plants. Mature stands can create mats up to 8 feet (2.4 m) thick.

Contrary to the popular perception that kudzu has taken over the South it, in fact, prefers sunny locations, such as the embankments of roadways and railways and will not invade an adjacent shady forest. To travelers who espy the conspicuous vine from their cars or trains, it appears to be everywhere. It's extremely aggressive but is not the sinister threat to humanity as the perpetuated myth may make it seem. People don’t have to keep their windows closed at night!

The top photo captured kudzu in the median of Highway 49 in the Mississippi Delta, several miles southeast of Clarksdale, Mississippi, on June 22, 2017. The bottom photo shows kudzu-covered trees and its broad mat stretched across a dry creek bed on a country road in southwestern North Carolina near Chimney Rock on August 20, 2017. 

Photo Details: Top - Camera Model: SONY DSC-HX400V; Lens: 4.3-215 mm ƒ/2.8-6.3; Focal Length: 5.24 mm; Aperture: ƒ/3.2; Exposure Time: 1/250; ISO 80. Bottom: same except - Focal Length: 12.58 mm; Aperture: f/3.5; Exposure Time: 1/500; ISO 80.