Kudzu’s entanglement of South begins to unravel

Kudzu, the nightmare weed that gobbled the South, is disappearing.

Slowly, inexorably, the scientists, foresters, farmers and goats — yes, goats — are gaining the upper hand on the slinky, creepy green vine that makes abandoned homes and utility poles disappear seemingly overnight.

Kudzu’s decline is difficult for a Southerner to grasp. Drive down that rural Coweta County road and the three-leafed monster is still wrapping old barns in a green embrace. That utility right of way near Smyrna? Covered in layer upon layer of kudzu carpet. The invasive plant’s ever-marching vines constrict countless trees in Atlanta’s parks.

But the scourge of pine tree farmers and backyard enthusiasts alike is fading into the South’s rearview mirror like Stuckey’s and winning Braves’ teams. Don’t believe it? Ask Dr. Kudzu.

“It’s in retreat,” said Jim Miller, a somewhat retired research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Auburn, Ala., whose four decades of work on invasive species earned him the affectionate nickname. “We can stop the spread of kudzu — we can lick it — and reclaim the land for other uses.”

Kudzu covered only 227,000 acres of Southern forests in 2010, according to the Forest Service, a remarkably reduced amount of territory compared with previous years. The city of Atlanta, by comparison, comprises 85,000 acres.

Rampant development, a kudzu-eating bug and herbicides threaten kudzu’s spread beyond the forests. Miller and other scientists say Japanese honeysuckle and other invasive species pose greater threats than kudzu to Southern biodiversity.

The South’s loss is the North’s unrequited gain. Milder winters, due to a warming climate, are allowing kudzu to spread into the Midwest, Oregon, even Canada.

Less kudzu hearkens a loss of Southern history and culture. It’s one less menace aggrieved Southerners can complain about. Much literature and lore revolves around the “green, mindless, unkillable ghosts,” as Georgia poet James Dickey put it.

“Oh yeah, all over the South, people just know you can’t stop kudzu. They say: ‘There’s nothing we can do. We’re helpless against it,’ ” said Miller, who has written two books on invasive Southern species. “But we showed ‘em.”

‘The miracle vine’

One summer, decades ago, Miller received two letters from farmers’ widows whose husbands once kept kudzu at bay.

“They were having nightmares of kudzu climbing in through the windows and grabbing them as they slept,” Miller recalled. “They were just really fearful. It was heartbreaking.”

Kudzu’s introduction to the South, though, was largely benign. The Japanese government, during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, created a lovely garden with various plants including the purple-flowered kudzu. Southerners, in particular, used the big-leafed plant as an ornamental vine to shade porches and backyards.

It soon gained popularity with farmers as forage for cattle and other livestock. The Pleas of Chipley, Fla., Charles and Lillie, built a nursery and marketed kudzu as “a miracle vine … to help humankind.” They sold kudzu plants via mail order. A historical marker proclaims, “Kudzu Developed Here.”

Southern farmers just about ruined the soil growing cotton, prompting the U.S. government to push kudzu as erosion control in the 1930s and ’40s. Over a decade’s time, the feds provided an estimated 84 million kudzu seedlings to farmers. By 1946, roughly 3 million acres covered the South.

Channing Cope, the farm editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, touted kudzu as “the miracle vine” and traveled across the South starting Kudzu Clubs.

“Cotton isn’t king in the South anymore,” he’d say. “Kudzu is king!”

By 1953, though, the government stopped pushing kudzu. The uncontrollable vine strangled Southern forests, killing mature trees and preventing seedlings from taking root. Commercial foresters estimated $500 million in annual losses, Miller reported. In 1972, the feds declared kudzu a weed. Within 20 years, kudzu would cover 7 million acres, spreading by more than 100,000 acres each year.

‘Still eating the South’

Trees cover three-fourths of Georgia, with much of the land farmed by major corporations who see kudzu as Enemy No. 1. The companies, in lockstep with the federal government and land-grant universities, attacked kudzu with herbicides, mowers, fire and replantings. They got help from Megacopta cribraria — the kudzu bug — another Asian import that likely landed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2009 and began munching its way across Southern kudzu fields.

A year later, kudzu had covered an estimated 227,000 forested acres in 12 Southern states, according to the Southern Forest Futures Project published by the Forest Service. It spreads, or expands its coverage area, by about 2,500 acres annually.

Japanese honeysuckle, by contrast, covered 10.3 million forested acres and spreads roughly 65,000 acres each year. Cogon grass, Chinese privet, English ivy, bamboo, tallow trees and other invasives occupy foresters more than kudzu.

“It’s not something I generally pay attention to because there are other invasive plants in the forests which we monitor that have broader coverage and pretty significant impacts,” said Chris Oswalt, a Forest Service researcher in Knoxville, Tenn. “So you can leave your windows open at night. You’ll be safe.”

Nobody accurately tracks kudzu’s spread beyond the forests. Miller estimates Southern urban and suburban coverage at about 500,000 acres.

Greg Levine, a co-executive director of Trees Atlanta, scoffs at the kudzu-in-decline narrative.

“I’ve never heard of it disappearing; it’s still eating the South,” said Levine, who deploys armies of goats and sheep, herbicides and lawn mowers into 20 parks to kill the pesky plant. “I’ve heard of it reaching further and further north as it gets warmer. You see it more in the mountains. It follows roads and power line corridors all the way up.”

The scientists don’t expect kudzu’s eradication any time soon. Maybe that’s a good thing. It’s rare when a plant so captures the imagination. The “mile-a-minute vine” has inspired poets, musicians, playwrights and science-fiction enthusiasts. Few odes have been written to Chinese privet.

“It’s a permanent part of our Southern landscape,” Dr. Kudzu said. “I like kudzu. I like to look at it. It’s like an old friend.”

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