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Environment


“The vine that ate the South” heads North
A pesky weed that is hard to get rid of can now be found in areas around Cleveland
Story by ANNE GLAUSSER


 
Kudzu, a vine destructive to crops, is moving its way north to cities like Cleveland.
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In The Region:

Say the word “kudzu” to anyone from the South and they’ll probably know what you’re talking about.

That’s because in states like Georgia and Alabama the invasive vine known as kudzu covers roadsides, chokes forests, brings down power lines, and blankets entire buildings.

Kudzu’s twined itself into Southern culture, but it’s a big environmental headache, causing crop and property damage and loss of biodiversity. And now the vine’s coming north.

For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN’s Anne Glausser has the story of one rogue patch near Lake Erie.

LISTEN: Glausser on the kudzu plant issue

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“Oh my god, look at it. It goes all the way up the wire and the pole."

Photographer Jean O’Malley was shocked when she got her first glimpse of the kudzu patch in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland.  It’s nothing but a sea of green in the gravel parking lot she’s looking at. 

The vine has worked its way up the power line here and along the fencing and onto the nearby business and over the trees clear to people’s homes. 

Quite an eyeful.  Amy Stone agrees.

“Yeah,” Stone said. “Wow. It’s quite a stand of it.”

A weed on steroids
She’s on the invasive team with Ohio State University Extension and came to check this out with us.

Kudzu’s caused a lot of grief down South.

“It’s also known as the vine that swallowed the South, or the vine that ate the South,” Stone said. “And so just imagine this kind of on steroids everywhere. … It’s a very aggressive, invasive, non-native species that at first they thought would maybe be a southern problem because of our winters. But as you can see around us, I mean that’s not the case.”

Getting acclimated
Researchers aren't entirely sure why the vine is extending its Northern reach, but many attribute it to climate change.

“Some of that is evolving,” Stone said. “So we thought maybe it wouldn't be hardy here. As our weather changes and we have maybe a longer growing season, we may be able to see flowering and seeding and so that would just spread it even faster.”

Kudzu can grow a foot a day -- up to 60 feet a season. It throws down roots everywhere it can, working its way into cracks and crevices on buildings, even collapsing whole barns and buckling power lines.

Ohio recently joined 14 other states in adding kudzu to the state’s noxious weed list.

“I think there’s even been some established sites in Maine, up the East Coast and all the way through the Midwest,” Stone said.

An invited guest ...
Funny thing is farmers were told to plant kudzu, back in the 1930s, to control erosion. 

“But then what we found out is it, there’s just no stopping kudzu,” Stone said.

It hasa pretty purple flower and was originally brought over from Asia as an ornamental.People still take cutting, unknowingly unleashing the beast. Now the vine can spread not only by ground but by wind or animal.

“Wherever it drops off would be another start of kudzu,” Stone said.

... Becomes and invader
And with kudzu comes problems: It drives out native plants, swallows trees whole and kills them, causes structural damage, and is bad for farmers.  Kudzu brings kudzu bugs which also like to eat soybeans, and the vine plays host to the crop disease soybean rust.

While milling around, a neighbor came over.

“Well are you gonna have them clean it up?” resident George Nelson asked. 

Once kudzu’s got a foothold in a place, it takes a whole lot of money and perseverance to clean it up. 

“If you don’t get every little piece of it, it will be back,” Stone said.

Stone says herbicides are the most effective way to take down the vine. Goats have also been tried as a means of control.

But to Nelson's point: Who is going to clean this up?

Turns out, someone offered way back when kudzu was first discovered here in early 2000.

Jim Bissell is a botanist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and he estimates it’d take nearly $10,000 to clean this up.

“Through our conservation outreach program, I would have done it and I still would,” Bissell said.

Problem is, Bissell couldn't find a taker.  Property owners didn’t want to get their hands dirty, so he let it drop.

Bissell is now reviving efforts to get this spot cleaned up, but the road is all the more, weedy.

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