Kudzu

(This column was first published in the September 29, 1997 Buffalo News)

    Botany lessons come from unexpected sources.

    We were visiting the Space Center and Redstone Missile Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama.  Our tour leader enjoyed the farmer's broad shoulders, erect posture and leathery tan that reminded me of the father-in-law I miss so deeply.  He had shown us missiles from the past and future space stations being built, had encapsulated the history of our exploration of the nearby solar system into a brief lecture and answered our many questions.  But now on our bus ride back to the Visitor Center, he departed from his notes to point out dark green vines that completely covered roadside trees and fences.

    "That's kudzu," he said, "It was first introduced to this country in 1876 at the Japanese pavilion of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition."  And he finished our tour with a ten minute oration on this vine that looked from our bus window as though it was rapidly swallowing the countryside.

    That brief introduction so intrigued me that I have done some research of my own.  I had, of course, seen this strangler vine on previous visits to the South and I had heard many stories about it.  For example, I was told, "Don't camp out near it; you may never be found again."

    Known in some areas as mile-a-minute vine, it does not live up to that hyperbole but it does grow as much as a foot a day, adding from 60 to 100 feet to its tentacles in a single season.  And that is only half the story.  Its massive root system digs ten or more feet down until it weighs several hundred pounds.

    Here in the North, wild grapes, Virginia creeper and poison ivy climb our trees but they usually don't seriously injure their host.  Kudzu, on the other hand, slithers up a tree trunk, often following the branches of those less noxious vines, until it reaches the crown.  There it spills over and, luxuriating in the sunlight, flows down over the defenseless tree until it reaches the ground.  Immediately other kudzu branches grow up these vines until the large leaves form a layered mat up to eight feet thick that choke its victim.

    It is unfair to blame the spread of this alien on the Japanese.  During the 1930s and 40s it was recommended for erosion control by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service -- thus its common appearance along roadways.  (This is reminiscent of our own Conservation Department's recommended multiflora rose plantings that soon made fields impenetrable.)  Kudzu also serves as a forage crop for cattle and the Japanese consume 1500 tons of kudzu starch each year in gourmet foods, breads, soft drinks and medicines for the treatment of high blood pressure and alcoholism.  A Japanese firm recently purchased an Alabama farm to cultivate the plant for export.

    Only when the depression caused failing farmers to abandon their lands did kudzu begin to grow out of control until today not only foresters but also electric companies have come to detest it.  The vine climbs power poles, shorts out the lines and damages the electrical equipment.

    Despite having some insect enemies -- appropriately including Japanese beetles -- kudzu is tough to destroy.  One interesting response has been spraying the vines with voracious soybean looper larvae -- together with parasites that prevent the caterpillars from becoming adult moths and flying to nearby bean fields.

    We in Buffalo are far enough north not to have a kudzu problem.  It cannot withstand our frosts.  So we'll just have to do without it, along with the fire ant and killer bee, the water moccasin, coral snake and alligator, and so many other interesting Southerners.