September 24 – The Vine That Ate The South

Today’s factismal: Kudzu vines in the US now cover an area larger than Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware combined!

When they started, it seemed like a great idea. Many farms in the South were failing, thanks to poor soil conditions caused by decades of cotton and tobacco production. Unless something was done, the economy of the entire are was going to collapse. At the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the Japanese had shown a vine that added nitrogen and minerals to the topsoil, making it fertile once more. Even better, the vine that they called kudzu had nearly unlimited uses: as an animal feed, as a fiber source for ropes and basket-weaving, as a soap, and even as food for people! Before long, no Southern farm was complete without its kudzu vines, draped elegantly across the porch to provide shade or creeping over the old fields to rejuvenate them. The vine was considered to be such a boon that the US government paid farmers to plant it!

Kudzu "the vine that ate the South" (Image courtesy USDA)

Kudzu “the vine that ate the South”
(Image courtesy USDA)

But farms still failed, thanks to boll weevils and changing politics. An as the farmers trudged to the city to find a new life, they left behind untended fields of kudzu. Kudzu that liked the southern sunlight and had no native enemies. Kudzu that had nothing better to do than spread and grow. Which it did, relentlessly. By 1953, there was so much kudzu that the federal government took it off of the list of suggested plants; by 1970, it was officially a weed and it was moved up to “noxious weed” by 1997. Kudzu had worn out its welcome.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done. Right now, farmers and just about everyone else in the South is trying to get rid of kudzu any way that they can. They’ve got goats grazing on it, weevils boring into it, and people running over it with lawnmowers. And still the kudzu spreads.

Of course, kudzu isn’t the first invasive species that we’ve created by taking a good idea and making it bad (Shakespeare’s birds, anyone?) and it probably won’t be the last. But one thing that we can do as citizen scientists is help to track these invasive species using a tool such as EDDMaps. The data you enter goes to scientists and agricultural control officers who can use it to help keep track of what is invading where, and decide the best way to stop them from eating the South (again). To participate, head over to:
http://www.eddmaps.org/about/

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