Carolina Curious: Can 'The Vine That Ate The South' Be Contained?

Carolina Curious: Can 'The Vine That Ate The South' Be Contained?

9:30am Feb 28, 2017
Credit: Gabriel Maisonnave for 88.5 WFDD

You’ve seen it on the side of the road, creeping up light posts and climbing the tallest trees - a sprawling green vine blanketing the landscape. It’s kudzu. Or, as some people say, “the vine that ate the South.”

WFDD listener Gail Dempsey sees kudzu regularly on her bike rides. “It looked like a Dr. Seuss landscape or something with all of the previous bushes or trees just covered.” So, she wanted to know:

When did kudzu start getting out of control, and what can we do to drive it back and restore the native plants?

WFDD’s Bethany Chafin digs in for our latest installment of Carolina Curious.

The History of Kudzu

Kudzu seems to be everywhere - on roadways, bikepaths, in fields and junkyards. It’s even invaded our cultural landscape. In the short film, "Killer Kudzu," a band of misfits must come together to save the town from the invasive vine that threatens to destroy the world as they know it.

But the plant wasn’t always considered a super villain.

Kudzu was first brought to the U.S. from Asia in the late 19th century. The soil conservation service encouraged farmers to use the plant to prevent soil erosion and feed their animals at the same time.

It wasn’t long, however, before people realized the potential downside of the new species – how fast it grew and took over. Kudzu can grow over a foot a day. Dr. Jay Bolin at Catawba College says the wonderplant lost its appeal. “It was declared as a federal noxious weed, and that’s what it’s considered now.”

So, how do we control it? Well, there are herbicides and the labor intensive option of digging out the underground root.

But there’s another ally in the fight.

The Goat Squad

Diana Tetens is the mastermind behind The Goat Squad, a targeted grazing business. “Kudzu is one of their top three favorite plants. They love kudzu. They love it,” she says. The animals have cleared land around homes, parks and public space, schools, churches, even a wetland area.

The business is eco-friendly, and she says it has unique benefits. “Goats can really easily access sites that humans and machinery can’t get to – ravines and steep slopes and rocky areas.”

Plus, Tetens says, they’re just plain fun.

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Members of Diana Tetens' Goat Squad. Photo courtesy of Diana Tetens

“They’re like celebrities. Sometimes I joke around that we’re their roadies. We go in and we do all the hard work and the set-up, and then literally when we unload them people are waiting with videocameras and cameras and 'oohs and ahhs,' you know, and the celebrities emerge.”

Tetens says when you remove the competition of the invasive species, which can take repeated grazings, a lot of the native plants will begin to come back.

If you’re thinking goats are a somewhat unconventional way of removing kudzu, wait for the next option.

Creative Solutions

At a quarry just outside downtown Winston-Salem, a large freshwater lake sits beneath the towering rock facades of a former mining site. Before the Parks and Recreation Department decided to turn the area into a public space, William Royston says there was a lot of work to do.

“Initially we found we had a little over 42, almost 43 acres of parkland here that was just covered in kudzu.”

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The freshwater lake at Quarry Park. BETHANY CHAFIN/WFDD

Royston didn’t want to use herbicides near the water. Instead, he began research on removal methods, and found an unusual way to deal with the problem: pumping helium into the ground around the plant itself.

“It would kill the kudzu. And as a result, without any replanting of a lot of the native grasses, the native plants would come back on their own.”

The area they used to test this method is still kudzu free.

It’s not very cost-effective, though, and helium is a limited resource. Royston says to get rid of the rest they had to use the old fashioned way - heavy equipment to dig it up. “It’s a learning experience for us as well, we try to do what we can to protect our natural resources and our environment, and you have to get really creative when you do that sometimes.”

Moving Forward

Botanist and Catawba Professor Jay Bolin says, yes, kudzu is bad for biodiversity, but the ecological impact might not be as terrible as we thought. Since the plant is a sun-seeking vine, you’ll find it more along the roadways than in the more shaded forests and protected national parks.

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Deep fried kudzu. Credit: Jay Bolin and students

And in fact, he says kudzu can even be a tasty treat. He teaches his students how to use this noxious weed in the kitchen. “Kudzu tea, kudzu salsa, we’ve made kudzu smoothies, but definitely the biggest hit is deep fried kudzu.”

Overall, kudzu seems to inspire some creativity - in removing it, in living with it, and when you add some fried batter, even enjoying it.

 
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