The Kudzu Cometh

Article Published: Sep. 2, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
The Kudzu Cometh

A hearty patch of kudzu approaches Alice Roess' backyard fence.

Photo by Jeff Eason

You might not have noticed it, but a foreign force has invaded Blowing Rock for the first time this summer. That force is fiendishly slow, yet relentless. In fact you could say that, like rust, this force never sleeps.

Kudzu, that southern scourge of utility poles, gullies and abandoned buildings, has long been a problem for folks "off the mountain."

Now it looks as if it's finally our turn.

Alice Roess, a Blowing Rock resident who lives on Wonderland Trail above the Glenn Burney Falls hiking trail, first noticed the kudzu growing up a hemlock tree in the woods beyond her backyard earlier this summer. Since then, she has noticed it in several other places, including on trees on the upper part of Wonderland Trail in Mayview Park.

Roess contacted Meghan Baker, an agent for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Watauga County, to find out if kudzu had previously been a problem in Watauga County.

Baker replied that Roess' call was the first she had received about kudzu in Watauga County, although she did "spot a patch in the far western part of the county, as you're heading towards Watauga Lake, so it is around in small patches."

It has also been spotted in the Triplett Community, which, at 1,800 feet above sea level, is the lowest point in Watauga County.

The spread of kudzu in Western North Carolina, and particularly here in the mountains, has been blamed on a lot of factors, including global warming and the recent months of hotter than normal temperatures in June and July. Some experts, however, believe it is the natural continuation of the vine spreading its way throughout the Southeast.

During the hottest months of the year, kudzu can grow 12 to 16 inches per day, and as a foreign invasive plant, it has few if any natural predators. And colder than normal winters, such as the one experienced last year, fail to deter kudzu once it reawakens and starts to spread in the spring.

"It would be dying back in the winter, but what is happening is that dormant seeds are sprouting each spring from the ground, or potentially being dispersed by birds in the same area," Baker said. "There is documented evidence that recent years have been hotter overall than historically recorded, and with climate change occurring we can expect to see plant habitats shifting, as well, hence we may see more kudzu encroaching into the High Country."

While kudzu has few, if any, natural predators, Baker noted that humans have tried just about everything to eradicate it.

"As with so many pests, it is best to control kudzu as soon as it is discovered on a piece of property," she said. "Herbicide is not always effective, can be expensive, and will likely have to be repeated as the root systems send up remaining plant shoots. Basal sprays, applied to the cut surface of the vine, are targeted chemical treatments that are less likely to effect surrounding vegetation.

"Repeated trimming and mowing of young vines will likely deplete the root system over a period of time, but that may take years to fully exhaust the plant's energy reserves in the roots.

"Biocontrol using goats is a good non-chemical approach to controlling kudzu, and there are a few people in our area who may be able to provide goats on a rental basis to help eradicate noxious weeds like kudzu and multiflora rose."

Rental goats? That's the 21st century solution to kudzu?

Apparently. According to Baker, using goats to eat kudzu is officially being promoted throughout the Southeast as an environmentally friendly way of eradicating the weed. Plus, it's a cheap and nutritious way of feeding your goats.

"Kudzu has been used as a forage for animals, including cattle, goats and sheep," Baker said.

"They'll eat leaves and vines, but it really depends on the growth stage as they generally prefer more of the new tender growth.

"Kudzu is actually a high-quality, high-protein forage, similar to alfalfa hay, but it's difficult to harvest due to its growth habit as a vine."

If kudzu is a healthy food for animals, is there any possibility that it can be used in human diets? The short answer is yes. A number of books have been written on the subject, including, "The Book of Kudzu: A Culinary and Healing Guide." In it, uses for kudzu are suggested, such as kudzu tea, kudzu salves for burns and abrasions, deep-fried kudzu leaves and even kudzu quiche.

Other creative people have found different uses for the cheap and seemingly endless supply of kudzu. Ruth Duncan of Greenville, Ala., weaves more than 200 baskets a year made entirely of kudzu vines, while Diane Hoots of Dahlonega, Ga., has developed her own company to market her line of kudzu products, which includes kudzu blossom jelly and syrup.

Despite the efforts of such entrepreneurs, most people in the Southeast consider kudzu more of a pest than a cash crop. Whether that pest spreads throughout Blowing Rock and the rest of the High Country or not is anybody's guess.

While some property owners might consider kudzu a nuisance, local agriculture experts, such as Baker, insist that it is far less of a problem than many other foreign invasive plants in the High Country.

"While kudzu is rampant across the Southeast and beyond, in the High Country, our main invasive plant problems continue to be multiflora rose, Japanese knotweed, Oriental bittersweet and garlic mustard," Baker said.

"These are very serious invasive plants that out-compete native trees, shrubs and forbs that many of our native wildlife depend upon. We should target and control kudzu sightings as quickly as possible, however, our full attention should be paid to these more common and rampant exotic plants."

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