Kudzu Conundrum: How to Deal With This Invasive Plant
Tips for stopping this plant monster’s advance and enjoying its benefits to boot.
Cue the “Jaws” soundtrack.
No, sharks aren’t about to invade your space. It’s something far more threatening: kudzu.
Look around. Lying beneath that wintertime sea of gray barren vines blanketing the roadsides, rural fields, abandoned cars, many a barn—maybe even (gasp!) your own backyard—is a green bomb waiting to explode during the first warm days of spring.
Now is a great time of year to get the upper hand on one of the world’s most invasive plants—if you can ever get an upper hand—by chopping up the vines on your property. That way, you’ll be able to access more parts of the plant in spring for spraying an herbicide on its new leaves—all in a noble attempt to gain control over a vine that’s known to grow a foot per day.
Sure, plenty of folks wonder why you’d ever want to destroy kudzu, given its benefits. Yes, it’s even edible (more about all that later)! But for every kudzu lover there are probably a thousand kudzu haters.
So how did Americans develop such a love/hate relationship with such a beautiful yet destructive plant?
Who Opened the Floodgates?
Kudzu, Pueraria montana var. lobata—also known as Japanese arrowroot—is a coiling, trailing, climbing perennial vine in the legume family. It’s native to most of eastern and southeast Asia, and when it becomes naturalized, it’s considered a noxious weed and in many areas extremely invasive. The problem isn’t that it simply takes over barren land or objects; it’s that kudzu also kills trees and shrubs in its path by blanketing them with shade so dense that the plants don’t get adequate sunlight.
Little did American gardening consumers know of that potential threat when they became enamored with the plant’s large bright green leaves and sweet-smelling purple and white blooms at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was there that the Japanese government built a beautiful garden exhibit spilling with its native plants—kudzu among them. And we all know what happens to gardeners when they become smitten by a plant at a flower show: they just gotta have it! Soon, kudzu was creeping its way into gardens as a coveted ornamental.
By the 1920s, gardeners weren’t the only ones drawn to the plant. Florida nursery owners discovered animals loved it too, and began to promote it as forage. From a 1928 agricultural bulletin: “Kudzu is not without disadvantages. It is slow and expensive in getting established, is exacting in requiring only moderate grazing and mowing, is deceptive about its real yield, especially to those who do not know it well and sometimes becomes a pest.” Duh!
During the Depression, the federal government learned of kudzu’s value in controlling erosion and enhancing soil, creating jobs for men who would plant it. It was only a matter of time before the vine would consume millions of acres, including valuable forest land—especially in the Southeast where the plant found the perfect climate. At last count, it’s spreading at more than 150,000 acres annually. Did someone cue the “Jaws” music?
Get a Grip!
For decades, scientists have experimented with every means imaginable to control kudzu—from mechanical methods, mowing and goat grazing to prescribed burning and most recently fungi as a biologically-based herbicide.
For homeowners, the only way to effectively manage it is chopping the stems, then applying a systemic herbicide directly to the cut, which then travels to the plant’s extensive root system. Georgia gardening guru Walter Reeves recommends spraying the leaves in May when they are about hand size, then respraying in September what re-sprouted over the summer. Still, expect an ongoing battle.
If You Can’t Beat It . . .
Despite kudzu’s gloom and doom, plenty of folks have discovered innovative uses for the plant.
Craftsmen have long used its strong fiber to make baskets, clothing and paper. In medicine, it’s helped to treat migraines, allergies and diarrhea. Its roots have even been hailed as a promising remedy for alcoholism and hangovers.
In food, it seems the possibilities for kudzu are endless. The roots contain starches that can serve as a thickener. The flowers have been used to make jelly, syrup and candy. And the leaves can be deep fried or baked in a quiche. Some eat the leaves raw, others sautéed. Just make sure the plant has not been sprayed with any chemicals before you go out and harvest a mess for dinner.