Kudzu in North Carolina

Kudzu in North Carolina
This energetic plant caught my eye while in western North Carolina

 Kudzu is a member of the pea family that has found a home most anywhere it lands. In 1876 it arrived here in the United States at the Centennial Exposition. It was displayed in the Japanese section of the Expo and from there it was taken throughout the country. It is a plant of warmish ground and we now see it widely throughout the southeastern USA. It did not establish in any other part of the country though there is one very small section of Ontario Canada that has Kudzu growth. It is covering an additional 150,000 acres per year in the south.

Though it seems a scourge it has many benefits – if it can be managed. It is a good forage crop for domestic animals and has been used with just about all the grazing animals. It can be baled and kept under cover as a winter feed. Your opinion can’t be predicted about this bit of information; after three or four years of grazing the plant will die back. As for human use it seems to have potential as an antioxidant and as a source of starch. It is used as a food in some countries and as a base for beverages in others.

It is a vining, “tendrilly” plant that reaches out and moves over the surface of anything that stands still. Hillsides, trees, wooded forest edges, abandoned buildings and aerial wires are all places Kudzu likes to be. It forms wonderful and weird shapes as it oozes along wires and over trees.
The leaves get to be the size of tea-cup saucers and are in groups of three; something like a poison ivy leaf on steroids. The flowers are purplish to my eye but are often referred to as any of many shades of red. The flowers can be made into jelly. They are very aromatic and sweeten the mid-summer air wherever they bloom. The flowers form clusters of fuzzy “pea pods”. There are a few fertile seeds in each cluster but the plant doesn’t grow by seeds and seeds spread by animals are not the main dispersal method. There is a root crown just below ground that sends out runners. These runners will root at each node and then spurt forward again. To remove Kudzu from an area all you have to do is remove these root crowns not the vines. But the roots grow deeper each year and after a few years the root crowns are not easy to completely remove – and if not completely removed they will grow back.

The negative role played by Kudzu as an invasive and deadly plant comes from its lush growth pattern. It shades the plants it grows up and over and the lack of sunlight, through the growing season, will often kill the plants underneath the Kudzu vines. Even though it is a nuisance plant in much of our southeast (Georgia especially) is is still widely used to control erosion. In the Amazon Basin it has been used to cover over area of illegal mining and limit erosion from exposed land cuts. Hopefully it won’t run amok in that great and diverse forest.

In the US it is rarely used for anything beneficial except as a feed for goats. But the chemicals in the roots and leaves (especially) have been shown to have significant potential for controlling alcoholism. There are also chemicals that seem to work well on migraines and cluster headaches. Perhaps we will be raising Kudzu on elevated strings and nets (like hops) and using it as a medicinal plant in the future. But right now, however, it remains the least favorite plant in the southern US.

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