The Ultimate Weed


So what is a story about a common plant doing in a list of 100 of the world’s greatest mistakes? If you live anywhere in the southern United States, where there are no hard frosts, you already know the answer.

Kudzu is a vine that originally grew on the rocky mountainsides of Japan. There it had to struggle with poor soil and cool weather. This made it an aggressive and hardy plant. In good soil and warm weather kudzu grows incredibly fast, often several inches per day. The joke in the southern United States today is that you have to close your windows at night to keep the kudzu from growing in overnight.

Kudzu was first introduced into North America in 1876. It was popular with a small number of gardeners, and just a few plants were grown until the 1920s. In those days, the ecological concern was not global warming, but soil erosion. This was the era leading into the Dust Bowl and anything that held the soil in place was popular. It also helped the plant’s popularity when it was discovered that kudzu was suitable for grazing as well. Its only drawback was that it could not survive a hard frost.

In the 1920s and early 1930s kudzu was the wonder plant. There were kudzu cookbooks and even kudzu clubs. Competitions were held to find new ways to use the tough vines and the broad leaves of the plant. In the early 1930s the U.S. government work programs paid workers to plant almost 2 million acres with kudzu. Then one day someone looked around and realized that wherever kudzu grew it killed off every other plant. The vine will climb and steal the sunlight from the tallest tree and grow so thickly not a single blade of grass survives. It was not saving the soil; it was threatening the entire ecology. Since that revelation, the government has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to kill off or slow the spread of the vine they had formerly been paying to have planted.

Today, even after years of eradication efforts, kudzu covers 7 million acres of land. Its range is limited only by frost and snow. A patch was even found in Canada in July 2009. The plants were growing in an area where Lake Erie kept the soil warm all year round. Kudzu has changed the face of the South. Drive along any highway, and you will see an area where the blanket of Kudzu leaves crawls like a green flood completely covering forests and fields. The killer plant can be easily recognized as it covers even the highest branches with its broad leaves. Today, kudzu is becoming a problem outside of the United States. The invasive plant is now being fought in northeastern Australia and northern Italy. Kudzu is a mistake that just keeps on growing and growing and growing some more.

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