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Kudzu, the Plant That Ate the South, Spreads North As Climate Warms Up

Liz Burlingame
Published: August 3, 2014


What's known as "the vine that ate the South" is beginning to make it's way north as the planet continues to warm up.

Kudzu is an invasive weed that was introduced into the U.S. from Japan more than 100 years ago. The plant took America by storm and was first used as an ornamental, before farmers discovered it was a great way to control erosion. Unfortunately, by the time Americans realized that getting rid of the stuff was nearly impossible, the damage was already done.

Today, the plant is the vegetative plague of southern fields and forests. It can grow as fast as a foot per day, and it's been swallowing the country from an epicenter in the southeast at a rate of 50,000 baseball fields per year, according to treehugger.com. From Texas to Florida, the weed has covered roadways, choked forests and blanketed entire buildings--now it's creeping northward.

New "pods" of Kudzu have been found in states such as Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois, and even as far north as Ontario, Canada. One reason for the Kudzu invasion is climate change, Lewis Ziska of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Bloomberg.

A National Climate Assessment issued by the White House reports that the average U.S. temperature has risen as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, most of that since 1970.

"The one thing that's kept these invasives in check has always been cold weather,"  Ziska told Bloomberg. "As the winters warm as a result of changing climate, that more or less opens up a Pandora's box of where these invasives can show up in the future."

(MORE: Water Supply Contaminated by Algae From Lake Erie)

Kudzu's direct and indirect cost to the U.S. economy is estimated to be more than $500 million each year, LiveScience reports. As if that wasn't bad enough, new research suggests Kudzu's negative impact could be felt globally. The plant affects the soil's ability to store greenhouse gases, which contributes to climate change.

In a paper published in the scientific journal New Pytologist, plant ecologist Nishanth Tharayil estimated that the Kudzu invasion results in the release of 4.8 metric tons of carbon annually.

"This is the same amount of carbon emitted annually by consuming 540 million gallons of gas or burning 5.1 billion pounds of coal," the study states.

So, how do we get rid of this environmental headache? Many people have been looking into ways to get Kudzu under control. In the city of Chattanooga, Georgia, leaders successfully controlled an outbreak of Kudzu by releasing goats and llamas in their wilds to graze on it. And last year, this Georgia teen gained national attention with an idea that involved injecting helium into Kudzu roots:


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