GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One of the country’s most notorious invasive plants is expected to become a major pest throughout the Midwest.
A study published earlier this year by researchers at Purdue University-Fort Wayne identified the Great Lakes as the next frontier for kudzu.
Kudzu is a hearty vine that was first brought to the United States from Asia as an ornamental plant and was eventually used for erosion control. In addition to its meaty vines, kudzu produces large, fragrant purple flowers and brown, hairy seed pods. It quickly grew out of control and was removed from the list of acceptable species in the Agricultural Conservation Program. By 1998, Congress listed it as a “noxious weed” and it is now commonly known as “the vine that ate the South.”
Jordan Marshall, a professor of plant biology at Purdue University-Fort Wayne and lead researcher on the kudzu study, said speed is the plant’s primary weapon.
“It grows very, very fast and it is able to overtop other plants. Essentially, when it grows over the other plants, it shades them out. And that’s where we start to see losses of trees, ground cover, things that are supposed to be there,” Marshall said.
The Nature Conservancy said kudzu vines can grow up to a foot per day and mature vines can reach upwards of 100 feet. Kudzu also spreads quickly because of the unique way it develops root systems. Unlike other plants that rely on wind or animals to spread seeds, kudzu grows on its own.
“They grow and reproduce mostly vegetatively, from the roots and then the vines growing and rerooting,” Marshall said.
Kudzu growth drowns out other plant life, creating a cascading impact across the ecosystem.
“Anytime we see a loss of plant diversity or plant species individually, there is going to be some downstream effect on wildlife, on insects that then affect bird populations and large mammals. It really does cascade down as we start losing plants,” Marshall said.
Since first being introduced more than a century ago, kudzu is now commonly found all across the southern U.S. and most of the eastern seaboard. According to a report from the Great Lakes Echo, there are confirmed infestations in northern Ohio and northern Indiana, and in five Michigan counties. Because of the large gaps in the established infestations, Marshall believes that kudzu was brought to Michigan communities unintentionally by humans, not through natural expansion.
The fight against kudzu will only get harder as the climate around the Great Lakes continues to warm. The plant thrives in areas with hot summers and mild winters.
“It just makes sense that it is going to continue spreading because it grows so well,” Marshall said. “The habitat, the climate, everything is suitable for kudzu to just keep growing.”
That being said, there are ways to stop kudzu. Marshall believes it is best to act quickly before the plant gets a chance to spread further.
“It takes people going out and actually cutting it, using herbicides to kill the (root) crowns,” Marshall said. “(If you don’t kill the) root crown, it can send up more roots or more vines, and then it can root at the nodes, just like most vine plants.”
It’s not a simple one-day or even one-year operation. Kudzu seeds can survive for several years in the ground, so depending on the size of the infestation, it could take several years of pulling and monitoring to truly kill it off.
If you see or know of a kudzu infestation in your community, people are encouraged to contact the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network.