Kudzu crops up in West Tisbury

The ‘vine-that-ate-the-south’ has a foothold on Old County Road, Pin Oak Circle.


The southeastern United States has long dealt with kudzu. Commonly referred to as the “vine-that-ate-the-south,” kudzu grows rapidly and can blanket entire landscapes. West Tisbury selectmen learned Tuesday night kudzu was discovered at the intersection of Old County Road and Pin Oak Circle.

“Apparently we have a problem,” selectmen chairman Cynthia Mitchell said.

“Yes, you have a very invasive — dangerously invasive weed — in West Tisbury on Pin Oak Circle and it’s going to be a problem if we don’t kill it,” tree warden Jeremiah Brown said.

Homeowners (Marsha and Donald Macgillivray) are willing to try new measures to eliminate the vines with the caveat that West Tisbury do its part as some of the kudzu is on the shoulders of Old County Road and Pin Oak Circle, Brown said.

“If I had to excavate it would probably be 75 percent on [theirs] and 25% on ours. That’s just my rough idea,” he said. “We don’t know where it came from…”

Town manager Jennifer Rand witnessed the scourge of kudzu on a recent trip.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” town manager Jennifer Rand said of the vine based on a vacation she took to North Carolina. “Every single tree, every single phone pole, the sides of roads…it was just bizarre..everything was covered. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Down there they call it the vine-that-ate-the-south,” Brown said.

Brown told the board he read it is taking over 120,000 acres a day down south.

Rand said she contacted the state and learned it has no program to help with the elimination of infestations.

The selectmen deemed the matter urgent and authorized Brown to draft a bid package and send it out to select contractors. They also authorized him to speak with the homeowner so the town can come to an understanding with them about cost sharing for the overall work.

“I’ll lead them in the direction of who to hire,” he said. “And I’m also willing…to monitor for a couple, three years — go over and watch it and make sure it’s being dealt with. It’s also a hundred feet away from my house. Let’s get rid of this. It’s coming my way.”

‘Post-apocalyptic Godzilla’ vine

Kudzu is has been found on the Cape, the South Shore and the North Shore. Felix Neck director Suzan Bellincampi told The Times she learned of a patch on Snake Hollow in Vineyard Haven that has since been left unchecked. While grape, porcelain berry, bittersweet and Japanese knot vine grew prolifically in places along Snake Hollow, The Times could not locate any kudzu.

“The invasive kudzu can easily overtake trees, abandoned homes, cars and telephone poles,” according to the Nature Conservancy. “Some call it amazing, others call it a menace. Either way, kudzu — a creeping, climbing perennial vine — is an invasive species that is terrorizing native plants all over southeastern United States,” one of its webpages states.  

“Kudzu is native to Japan and southeast China. It was first introduced to the United States during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 where attendees marveled at the sweet-smelling blooms, large leaves and sturdy vines of what was touted as a great forage plant and ornamental for the backyard,” the page states. “Then, in the 1930s through the 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted it as a great tool for soil erosion control and was planted in abundance throughout the south. Little did we know that kudzu is quite a killer, overtaking and growing over anything in its path.”   

“Kudzu’s darker side surfaced in the early 1980s, when Atlanta actually declared out-of-control kudzu a misdemeanor,” Martin J. Smith wrote in the book “Oops: 20 Life Lessons From the Fiascoes That Shaped America,” which he co-authored with Patrick J. Kiger.

Smith offered a telling example of how intimately disastrous introduction of kudzu to America was deemed to be.

“The editors at Time magazine understood this when, in a special end-of-the-millennium issue, they listed the introduction of kudzu to the United States among the ‘100 worst ideas of the century’,” he wrote. “The list also included asbestos, DDT, driftnet fishing, Barney, spray-on hair, Jerry Springer, and thong underwear for men.”

As pernicious as it is, Smith wrote the vine is not “invincible,”

“Certain fungi common to beans can retard its growth, and animals as diverse as deer, goats, rabbits, slugs, moth larvae, and some Japanese beetles find it delectable. Overgrazing by ruminants can eliminate a stand of kudzu within two years, even if it creates a methane problem in the process. Some herbicides are effective, but that sort of human intervention requires both vigilance and persistence, with treatment seldom effective unless it’s carried out consistently every year for a decade. John Byrd, a professor of weed science at Mississippi State University who tested various chemicals to control the vine, suggested in a 2000 issue of Smithsonian magazine that the surest way to control a patch of kudzu is to build a Wal-Mart on top of it.”

After it had been widely planted in the south for erosion control, Smith wrote, “the vine itself began to grow like a post-apocalyptic Godzilla feeding off of ambient radiation.”

Like Dutchman’s pipe and wisteria, kudzu was also considered a pleasant porch trapping.

By 1900, kudzu was the preferred porch vine in the south “because its flowers were pretty and exuded the alluring scent of grapes, Smith wrote, “its mitten-shaped leaves provided ample shade, and during the warmest months of the year it reaches its top-speed growth of a foot a day — so fast some people joke that the best way to plant kudzu is to drop the seeds and run like hell. As the new growth races along, the plant divides at nodes spaced about a foot apart along the stem, and each node that touches soil sets down new roots, eventually forming a sprawling web between two and eight feet thick. Once it begins to climb, things get particularly dramatic. Telephone poles, trees, and entire buildings disappear beneath a curtain of green. Scientists estimate that a single acre of kudzu will expand to 5,250 acres if allowed to grow unchecked for a hundred years  —  a reality Dickey had in mind in describing the vines as “green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.”

A scientist speaks

Joseph Neal, a professor of weed science at North Carolina State University, told The Times the indestructibility of kudzu is overblown.

“Actually that’s a bit of a myth,” he said.

While he noted, “it has expanded its range in North America, it’s really not difficult to control once you’ve decided that’s a priority to do so.”

When the situation in West Tisbury was described to him, Neal said both the private property owner and the town need to effect a solution or the vine will continue to encroach.

“You have to control the entire infestation. This is a perennial weed that persists with a very thick root,” he said.

Neal said the 1-foot a day notion is not apocryphal but not standard either.

“Under absolutely ideal conditions it can push up to a foot a day on the vine,” he said.

Inches a day is a better metric, he said. Unmanaged southern sites are where the vine gets out of control and blankets, he said.If a property is well managed, kudzu isn’t problematic.

“Here in the south we accept that we’re going to have kudzu.”

At New England’s growing climates, Neal suspected kudzu seedlings would be hard pressed to survive cold weather and therefore dispersal by seed is questionable.

“We really don’t know at this point whether it would successfully reproduce by seed,” he said. “[A] patch can enlarge from the roots and the spreading vines.”

Soil up from southern states of other areas where the vine is prevelant, soil containing kudzu plant matter, is a possible answer to how it came to grown on the Vineyard, he said.

“If you can imagine ways that soil can move, you have a myriad of possibilities,” he said.

Left unmanaged, the vine tends to smother everything around it. “It will grow right up over the top of almost any plant in the area,” Neal said.

The trees it kills can then become topple dangers,he pointed out, especially in storms when the added surface area of the vines acts like a sail.

Herbicides can kill the vine, he said. In more sensitive areas, there are workable control methods as opposed to eradication methods.

“It’s well controlled by grazing animals (goats, cattle),” he said. “It’s actually very high quality forage for cattle.Mowing will control it. You’ve never seen kudzu in a lawn unless it’s climbing over from a neighbor’s unmanaged property. Japanese knotweed is actually more difficult to control.”

Neal advocated the ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure philosophy.

“It’s easier to prevent the plant from becoming a problem than it is to clean up a badly infected site.”

And despite it’s invasiveness, kudzu does have once silver lining, he said. “It actually has quite attractive flowers.”

Donald Macgillivray said kudzu appeared on their property “about two years ago.” Neither he nor his wife Marsha know how the vines came to be there.  



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