How Kudzu Works

Kudzu's Effect on American Ecosystems

Kudzu quickly slithers around this tree to put it in a deadly choke hold.
Kudzu quickly slithers around this tree to put it in a deadly choke hold.

People don't call kudzu the plant that ate the South for nothing. As we learned earlier, kudzu grows really fast -- as much as a foot or two (30 or 61 centimeters) each day. Once it forms a blanket over land or trees, light can't get through, so the vast majority of the underlying plants or trees eventually die. Only the hardiest plants can survive the suffocating effects of a kudzu infestation. Considering that, imagine the damage kudzu can do to a food or timber crop. Forest economist Coleman Dangerfield estimates that for every acre of timber that kudzu overtakes, landowners lose $48 per acre per year. Another expert, plant ecologist James Miller, calculates that electricity providers spend $1.5 million per year just to control kudzu and keep it off power lines and utility poles [source: Britton]. That's scary enough, but the weight of kudzu vines can actually uproot trees, elevating the plant from a mere annoyance to an actual source of danger.

As early as 1953, the U.S. government began to ramp up kudzu control efforts. In 1970, it declared kudzu a weed because of the nuisance caused by its relentless growth [source: Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council]. The problem has only grown since then because of the way that kudzu overtakes and smothers native plants, setting off a chain reaction that undermines ecosystems in the process. It's chilling in its simplicity, actually: Kudzu disrupts the food chain by threatening vegetation that native animals use for food and shelter. What's more, kudzu root systems impact the amount of water in the soil and ultimately, the ecosystem itself. For these reasons, the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG) recently added kudzu to the Global Invasive Species database and they've named it one of the 100 worst alien invasive species on Earth [source: Global Invasive Species Database].