Kudzu is a hearty and leafy vine that grows quickly and abundantly in the southeast part of the United States. It grows so fast that those in the South quip that, “You might be a Southerner if… you’ve ever lost a loved one to kudzu.” Kudzu covers everything it comes in contact with. As you drive through a kudzu state, the roadside is draped with it, and you can only vaguely make out the shapes of trees, fences, small buildings, farmers…
With a name like “kudzu,” it’s obvious that it’s not indigenous to the U.S., so where did it come from? In 1876, the nation of Japan originally brought it as a “gift” to the United States to celebrate the U.S.’s 100th birthday at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the government realized that the dense root system of kudzu would be an excellent deterrent to soil erosion. The Civil Conservation Corps paid hundreds of unemployed men to plant the vine throughout the South. Farmers were paid as much as $8 an acre to plant entire fields of kudzu in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
But by the 1950s, rapid growth of the plant (it grows a foot each day) had started to cool the government’s enthusiasm for what had been dubbed, “the miracle vine.” They stopped advocating it altogether, and by 1970, the USDA had officially declared kudzu a “noxious weed.” It had now earned the new nicknames of “mile-a-minute vine,” “foot-a-night vine” and “the vine that ate the South.”
But it was too late to pull back support. Such large amounts of kudzu had been planted that it soon began to interfere with the growth of crops and destroy forest land. Kudzu vines were so heavy that they often brought down power lines and even collapsed small buildings. Kudzu was taking over.
Today, kudzu covers seven million acres of land in the Southeast, and it’s not going away anytime soon. For years, we have been trying to find a herbicide that will kill the plant. It’s highly resistant to poisoning, and most experts agree that it takes a concerted and persistent ten-year effort to kill just one patch of kudzu. Even then, it’s likely to come back unless the patch is watched and treated regularly. Current estimates put kudzu management costs at more than $50 million each year!
All this happened because the government broke one of the cardinal rules of problem solving. They didn’t consider the long-term effects of their solution. Some solutions create problems that are bigger than the original problem they were intended to solve. What looked like an effective treatment of soil erosion and unemployment during the Great Depression was really a long-term relationship with a fast-growing, all-consuming predator weed. Had we asked Japan about the growing conditions of the vine before we spread it all over the South, we might have realized that Japan’s climate and certain natural insect enemies help to naturally keep the vine at manageable levels.
I know what you’re thinking… but before we start importing those natural insect enemies to take care of the problem we already have, consider a potential headline 50 years from now:
“The Insect That Ate the South!”
Beware the “quick-fix.” It comes with small print (and creeping vines).