“Like most Southern children, I accepted, almost as a matter of faith, that kudzu grew a mile a minute and that its spread was unstoppable.”
—Bill Finch, “Legend of the Green Monster”
How many millions of acres do you suppose have been eaten by kudzu, the notorious plant predator of the South? Well, according to botanist Bill Finch, writing in this month’s Smithsonian (great mag, by the way), you might be surprised. Finch reports that the vine covers about 227,000 acres of forestland, which still seems like a lot, but is only one sixth the size of Atlanta and nowhere near the acreage invaded by Asian privet (3.2 million) and multiflora roses (about a million). Many websites report highly exaggerated figures not only for kudzu’s spread (7–9 million acres is the common figure) but the rate at which it spreads (150k acres a year as opposed to the reality: 2,500 a year). Finch goes on to describe how the vine has actually begun to falter in its spread, thanks to a kudzu-specific pest.
Anyone who’s driven in the South can understand why kudzu has the reputation that it has. It dominates the roadside landscape, engulfing trees and abandoned structures for miles. In my area, we have a variety of different vines, invasive reeds, and other plants fighting for domination along the highways, but when you see kudzu, it tends to be all you see. Deceptively—because once in the shade of the forest, it peters out. Finch believes that the obsession with kudzu hides the true diversity of the Southern landscape.
For years, I’ve been reading about kudzu, not in horticultural sources, but in novels, essays, and short stories, usually by Southern writers. It has the kind of romantic reputation that completely eludes the plant pests of my region (bindweed, bishop’s weed, phragmites, etc.). Aside from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, we don’t celebrate our weeds quite as much up here. And it took a Southern songwriter to make pokeweed (which grows quite nicely in Buffalo) famous. I’ll enjoy my next sighting of kudzu all the more, thanks to this new information.