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Out of control - what to do about kudzu

Matthew Lane • Dec 2, 2018 at 6:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Kudzu is a plant known for its fast growth rate and ability to overtake large swathes of land, including trees, telephone poles, old vehicles and even houses. It can grow up to a foot a day, easily earning the nickname, the “mile a minute” plant and the “the vine that ate the South.”

In Kingsport, there are some well-known kudzu infestations: a hill on Stone Drive near Putt-Putt, some empty land along Industry Drive and on Cement Hill near downtown. A reader of the Times-News recently sent a letter to the editor about the issue, hoping folks would take action to help attack and curb the growth of this pesky plant.

ABOUT KUDZU

Kudzu is part of the legume family (which includes alfalfa, clover, peas and soybeans) and is fairly nutritious when prepared properly. Its flowers smell like grape Kool-Aid, and when bees work the flowers, they produce a purpleish honey.

According to the Nature Conservancy, kudzu is native to Japan and southeast China and was introduced to the United States during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu as a great tool for soil erosion control, and it was planted in abundance throughout the South.

That might have been a mistake.

“The trouble was it grew too fast, and in sunny areas it grew over and choked out (other plants and trees),” said Marty Silver, park ranger at Warriors Path. “Once it gets established, it’s pretty hard to eradicate because it has a very deep, complex root system.”

Silver said kudzu is known as an invasive exotic plant — exotic meaning it’s not native to our part of the world and invasive because it can choke out any number of plant and tree species. It’s not the worst type of invasive plant, but it’s pretty bad, Silver said.

“It’s not as good for soil erosion than native plants because it dies back to the ground in the wintertime. It still has roots underground, but no surface cover.”

CITY’S PERSPECTIVE

Kingsport employees will attempt to remove kudzu from city-owned or -controlled properties, but never on privately owned land, explains Lewis Bausell, landscape specialist for the city.

“If it grows from one private property to another, that would be a civil matter between them, and we do not get involved since there’s no city code that addresses it,” Bausell said.

Melanie Adkins, code enforcement officer for the city, explained that from a code enforcement standpoint, there’s an exception for kudzu within the city.

“Our position has always been that we can’t require people to remove it because it’s dense vegetation that grows wild and out of control,” Adkins said. “It’s basically an impossible task and it falls under the exceptions. I tell people to draw an imaginary line up the property line and do whatever they want to do if it comes over on them. Some people attempt to spray it but it doesn’t do much good.”

KILLING KUDZU

So, how do you remove kudzu from your property? If the infestations around town are any indication, it’s not as easy as it looks.

According to the Nature Conservancy, kudzu can grow as much as a foot a day, with some vines growing more than 100 feet in length. Roundup will only slow it down, but not kill it. In 2016, Chattanooga brought in goats to eat back the kudzu on the steep sides of Missionary Ridge, but the program was eventually axed due to budget cuts.

“There are some herbicides that will kill it (with multiple applications) at the application site. However, since it is such a fast growing plant, if not all of the roots are killed it will continue to spread back from the property from which it comes from,” Bausell said.

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