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Kudzu, the vine that never truly ate the South (2015) (smithsonianmag.com)
85 points by softwaredoug 15 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

There is a key bit in this article that isn't expanded upon. It's something I only learned about after spending hundreds of hours controlling invasives and talking to other people.

Plants that are considered noxious weeds and plants that are harmful to our natural environment are pretty different things.

If you look at who has authority under the Federal Noxious Weed Act, you'll see it is the department of agriculture. They really don't care about natural areas much at all, they only care about how much agriculture you can get out of a piece of land. If a plant impacts this, it is considered noxious.

A prime example of this is the USDA noxious weeds list for my state, https://plants.usda.gov/java/noxious?rptType=State&statefips...

It doesn't even include truly heinous invasives like Privet, japanese/amur honeysuckle, or garlic mustard, but DOES include a couple of natives like grape vines and butterweed!!

It's pretty disheartening, because a lot of people don't realize this and it can cause some issues. I am friends with someone at a local nature center where they remove butterweed due to it being considered a noxious weed even though it is not at all invasive and is a native wildflower.

A thing I heard somewhere, I think on an episode of the Permaculture Podcast [1], was to stop thinking of it as "invasive" plants. Plants aren't "invading", they're filling a niche that is under-served. The way to keep those plants from growing is to supplant them with other (potentially native) plants filling the same niche, or modify the environment to fix whatever deficiencies the unwanted plant is gaining it's advantage from.

They also tied it into the immigration debate, which I thought was interesting. They mainly played off the fact that the same people who are pro-immigration are often pro-native plants. Is it really the best idea to eradicate species from regions, when we could just learn how to live together more effectively?

I feel like I probably did a very poor job reiterating all of that. We've really enjoyed listening to that podcast though.

[1] https://www.thepermaculturepodcast.com/

In Beyond the War on Invasive Species By Tao Orion, the author gives facts and numbers to back this up.

People are destroying native plant habitats, and creating the perfect conditions for invasives. In fact 90+% of native species aren't threatened by invasives. The invasives actually help heal the soil for native plants.

The author then asks, why then is there a war on invasives? And that's where the book gets good imo.


Would you mind expanding on why there is a war on invasives?

Invasive plants displace native ones; in the mid-Atlantic where I live, Chinese tree of heaven are everywhere. They crowd out walnut and other hardwoods, they aren't as tall and attractive, and the wood isn't clean burning. Our problem is also deer over-population-- the deer devastate the native trees and bushes but not the invasives.

>Chinese tree of heaven are everywhere.

Ghetto palm also attracts the latest chinese hell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotted_lanternfly

In New Hampshire fields with poor soil are sometimes colonized by the invasive Autumn Olive (Japanese silverberry). I knew they fixed nitrogen, so I figured I would cut them down later, and I created a chicken coop next to one to shade it until I replaced it with something else.

It turns out not only does it fix nitrogen, it improves the yields of nearby plants (in this case blueberries) and its fruit is edible to both me and the chickens. So it gets to stay after all. I'm glad I looked it up.

I was suprised at how difficult it was to get the "invasive" autumn olive going. I've tried from seed a handful of times and I've never had them germinate. Did you do anything special? I tried cold stratifying for a couple months with no difference.

dig a small one up from the forest and plant it at your house, or just wait for it to show up. Dig up a 1-2 foot specimen. Take a few so you have a couple chances.

I have 5 shrubs at my house and I'd identified at least 10 different stands of this plant in my locale. Birds spread the seed which love to take over space after humans destory the ecosystem.

They grow about 9-15 feet high, the berries are delicious but a bit astringent, meaning they make your mouth feel dry.

Unfortunately I cannot help, I did nothing special as they were here since I bought the property

Whats heinous about mustard garlic?

It exudes anti-fungals into the soils and damages the ability of the soil ecosystem to support other plants.

For those interested, check out the work of Doug Tallamy, an entemologist at the University of Maryland. His basic thesis is that insects drive ecological health and that invasive species that don't have thousands of years of coevolution with native insect populations provide ecological dead zones that are equivalant to concrete.


My opinion based on his work and others is that kudzu and others dramatically reduce biodiversity and upsetting ecological balances that took thousands of years to create. It's wonderful that pests show up to consume kudzu (like the bug referenced in the article), but it's not the same as a native species occupying the same niche that provides forage, pollen, seeds, habitat, and other necessities that make native insect populations thrive, which in turn supports larger fauna like birds, mammals, etc.

As a side note, he's at University of Delaware not University of Maryland.

Whoops, you're right. Thanks for catching it.

I've seen the kudzu vine videos, but this article misses the point though it does touch on it

>More important, it obscures the beauty of the South’s original landscape, reducing its rich diversity to a simplistic metaphor.

The destruction of that 'rich diversity' is the problem. It's same way Himalayan blackberries take over roadsides and provide monoculture ecosystems in the northwest. That 'rich diversity creates canopy layers used by different wildlife, bird and insect species. How many species were adapted to living in the natural habitat there before those kudzu patches, while not as big as sensationalism says, have overrun other natural species.

Introduced species that dominate the ecosystems they're introduced to cause more problems then we can even understand because in many cases, the historical data just doesn't exist and we're not even sure what was lost.

I think you are arguing a point that the author doesn’t make. It’s not that kudzu isn’t invasive, nor that it doesn’t smother the landscape. The main point of the article is that it doesn’t expand quickly beyond the disturbed places where it was originally planted, like road cuts.

When I was a kid, we were told stories of kudzu growing feet per day, and of people going away for a trip and coming home finding their house engulfed. Southerners legitimately thought it would grow to engulf everything. However, as the author points out, the giant fields of it that were there when I was a kid, are still there today, and they aren’t much bigger than they were then.

It certainly adds to maintenance costs near where I live.

It swarms over sidewalks/power poles/lawns. The city has to come cut it back every 3 to 4 weeks, and I consistently lose bike lane space to it.

Now - it was here when I moved in, so maybe in the absence of kudzu, something else would be doing the same thing.

But it really does seem to love the spaces that we've cleared for use, and it makes keeping them clear much harder.

One house that was flipped about a year ago borders a large patch of it. The flippers put up a fence to block the hillside (sloping down away from the house) and stop it coming into the yard. It's about 13 months later now, and it's about to drag the fence down. I've seen the folks who moved in clear it off the fence at least twice.

That said, you can go a mile over and struggle to find any, since the soil/sunlight conditions are different.

I would hesitate to buy property with large swathes of it nearby, since it truly is a nuisance. That said, areas we haven't cleared seem mostly free of it. So more of a people problem, less of an ecological problem.

In the effort to find something the plant is actually useful for, a high school classmate's science project was to see how much ethanol you could get out of it. Turned out - not much.

But he did find that goats will eat it -- if there isn't anything tastier around.

Case in point, when I’ve been in the Carolinas all the kudzu patches I’ve seen have been covering trees that were already growing. The trees were dying.

And it’s that same with Himalayan blackberry in Washington. It chokes out our native berries. We have patches of salmon berry, native blackberry and salal in my area that are under threat from himalayan blackberry.

I grew up in a southern town that was built out of whole cloth in the 40s (Oak Ridge, TN). It wasn’t carefully done, and there were lots of issues with erosion. Enter kudzu to the rescue. For a long time it appeared that the town was going to be swallowed up by the stuff, but once the trees got tall enough, it started fading away and now you have to look hard to find it.

I was researching this because I know of someone who suffers from acoholism, "A Single Dose of Kudzu Extract Reduces Alcohol Consumption in a Binge Drinking Paradigm"[1].

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4510012/

I remember a few years ago when kudzu bugs first showed up. There were swarms of them, and I remember for a few weeks I'd get them on me when walking from the car to the front door.

Then the next year I thought they'd all vanished, until I looked at a kuzdu vine and noticed it was covered in them. It's almost like they didn't know where the kudzu was when they showed up, but now that they've found it that's where they stay.

I didn't know what they were but now I see that they're those little green things that remind me of square ladybugs. I had one tag along on my bike ride today.

About 6 months ago I applied for a job at Chicago Botanic Gardens, which was hiring on the basis of a 10 million dollar grant from the "Negaunee Foundation." After doing a little digging, I discovered that the Foundation was run by a Koch-type billionaire family. It cannot be a coincidence that the majority of the money seemed to be earmarked for eliminating invasive species. Literal NIMBYs

A contrapuntal perspective, which I haven't gotten around to reading yet, is "Beyond Invasive Species" by Tao Orion. Not an expert, but I would imagine that as in most things, the first rule of permaculture/ecology should be "first do no harm."

https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Richard_W._Colburn https://www.chicagobotanic.org/research https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/beyond-the-war-on-invas...

> Conservation biologists are taking a closer look at the natural riches of the Southeastern United States, and they describe it as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, in many ways on par with tropical forests

I often hear that the southeastern U.S. has some of the highest biodiversity of anywhere on earth, but as someone who grew up there, I'm not sure that it's really that apparent, at least visually. The vegetation all the way from Atlanta up to Maine tends to look like this (https://static.rootsrated.com/image/upload/s--nsRlDT5Y--/t_r...). If you dropped me in the woods in any state along the east coast, I wouldn't be able to identify which state I was in. Perhaps there is diversity in the number of species, but the trees and plants themselves don't look that different from each other. I moved to the west coast two years ago, and at least in appearances, it seems like there is more biodiversity (https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-Od2CTO9JsJw/Wq7QDGEtQ6I/AAAAAAAAD...). Does anyone know what might explain the discrepancy? Just north of SF, there are redwood trees and cypress trees, which look strikingly different from each other.

Also, for those of you that grew up on the west coast, I'm curious what was your subjective impression of the vegetation in the southeast the first time you visited?

I think it’s just your perception. I can easily spot when a movie or TV show was filmed in a North Georgia forest. And when driving from Atlanta 2 hours west to Birmingham, 2 hours east to Augusta, or 2 hours south to Columbus you can tell a huge difference in vegetation.

As for your pictures:





All in the Southeast.

There's interesting variations, too. Most of Georgia seems to be a good place to grow Slash Pine but near Savannah it also grows a pretty moss on the bark.

A lot of the biodiversity of the Southeast is in the wetlands. Another hotspot is in the temperate rainforests of the southern Appalachians. You wouldn't see either of those places by accident. Piedmont is kind of boring by contrast. Eg.





With that said, as a Floridian I was happy to see palm trees again when I moved to the Bay Area. It's nice there.

It's my understanding that California has more spiky plants than broadleafs due to the dry-summer climate. Most of the Southeast is broadleaf because it's very wet year-round. Plants with small leaves reveal more about their structure from a distance while broadleaf forests form a green blanket. So the biodiversity in California might be a little more visible. Southwest Florida has a semi-xeric climate as well but with dry and warm winters, similar to southern Mexico, and various species of cacti can be found.

I suspect they're talking specifically about the longleaf ecosystem:


Kudzu is a bitch to fight, but areas where it grows best aren't good for much else anyway. In my area the kudzu patches cover areas almost too rough for goats to graze.

I hadn't known of the beetle mentioned in the article, but I've seen wild grapevines beat kudzu in a couple places the past decade and wondered why. Suspect that's the reason.

Not good for much else humans care about. The ecosystems in those spots might feels differently.

Are there places too rough for goats to graze? They're commonly climbing almost vertical surfaces whether wild or domestic.

They can survive, and wild ones thrive, in places where a commercial goat farm could not be made to operate. I have in mind a particular neighbor who tried to run goats in an awful kudzu covered gorge on his land. The kudzu survived, the goats didn't.

The tragedy is that the wild muscadines don't seem to produce a sweet fruit.

I've spent maybe a hot minute in the south, and even I know the legend of the dreaded kudzu. This article has destroyed a myth from my youth!

I'm sure the truth is somewhere in between, as invasive species always displace something, even with moderate penetration.

spent more time than I'd like to admit watching kudzu videos on youtube, and it seems like there are many fans of kudzu because of all the benefits of it: kudzu jam, kudzu vine basketry, kudzu baked goods, etc.

I sure could use a few of the “Japanese kudzu bugs” mentioned in this article to control the kudzu that I keep chopping back around my place in New Orleans.

Kudzu is medicinal. I grow medicinal herbs in my farm and so I get to ‘hear in’ what herbalists discuss amongst themselves.

Kudzu in combination with other herbs was considered for covid during early times. I subscribe to homeopathy myself rather than herbalism and found Byronia Alba a close substitute. Altho I use it as a prophylactic. (Not medical advice. It’s just for my own constitution and supports my constitutional remedy. Not falsifiable)

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