Southern Ohio Monitors Spread Of Kudzu.

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Long synonymous with the Deep South, Kudzu may now be creeping its way north. The fast growing vine, which is native to Japan, has been growing for decades in parts of southern Ohio, but climate change may make the state even more hospitable to kudzu in coming decades. Though it isn’t yet the scourge here that it is in the South, efforts are under way to make Ohio Kudzu-free.

One thing seems to come to mind when Athens resident Mike Rex surveys the Kudzu patch on his property-a blanket.

“Okay, if you look where the electric line goes through, see where it’s blanketed, the sides of the trees, and then it’s blanketed the whole area of the cutover through here, going up this side and up that side. Like a blanket almost. (Hickman)’Like everything’s covered with a kudzu blanket.’ (Rex) Yeah, exactly. Says Rex.

Kudzu was originally brought to the United States in the late 19th century, but it really took off in the 1920′s and 30′s when it was planted first as a forage crop, and then in a federal effort to control soil erosion in the south. Only later did anyone come to realize how quickly it would spread and how difficult it would be to control. Now scientists estimate that every 10 or 15 years, kudzu spreads across an area the size of Delaware. So far it’s covered over 7,000,000 acres, including a few in southern Ohio. But it’s still an unusual sight in Mike Rex’s neck of the woods.

“I’ve heard it referred to by the locals as ‘wild cucumber.’ I don’t know why, but the leaves kind of look like cucumber vines, I guess. And I’ve had people say, ‘yeah, you live out there by that cucumber patch!” Says Rex.

When it gets going, though, Kudzu isn’t like any cucumber vine you’ve ever seen. Able to grow 7 or 8 inches a day and nearly 100 feet each year, it’s been nicknamed the “mile a minute vine” and the “foot a night vine.” But in Ohio, Kudzu doesn’t seem to be living up to its reputation.

“Now, if you look around, it hasn’t really moved far from this spot. Which tells me that something is holding it back. I don’t know if it’s the severity of our winters, or if its the wildlife or , I mean, I don’t know what. But I know that I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors down south, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and it’s, obviously, it’s everywhere down there.” Says Rex.

In the south, Kudzu can quickly cover bushes, trees, and abandoned cars and buildings, turning everything into a lush, alien landscape. Heather Coiner, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, describes the first time she traveled to the south to study the vine.

“The first time you see it, it looks like there’s something wrong with the landscape. It doesn’t’ look like a normal field, it looks like something . . . apocalyptic. (Hickman) ‘I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before, but it really looks like, kind of like, the blob has come?’ (Coiner) I was just thinking that, actually. The words “the blob” were actually in my head.” Says Coiner.

Coiner is working to understand why Kudzu doesn’t grow as well in the north as it does further south. The prevailing hypothesis has long been that Kudzu can’t handle cold winters, but Coiner has found that that’s not the case. Instead, she suspects that the shorter and cooler growing seasons in places like Ohio make it more difficult for Kudzu to thrive. But it’s possible that that could all change with the climate.

“Certainly in areas where Kudzu already exists, I would expect as the climate warms, that these patches become more invasive. There are many people who think that Kudzu is moving north, but so far I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that that is the case. However, with global warming, there would certainly be a potential for Kudzu to be able to survive in areas where it once was not able to survive.” Says Coiner.

At the Wayne National Forest, Botanist Chad Kirschbaum is working to make sure that kudzu doesn’t have a chance, climate change or no climate change. He helped found the Iron Furnace Cooperative Weed Management Area-a partnership between private, federal, state, and local groups-which is working on eradicating Kudzu from Ohio. Kirschbaum likes their odds.

“It’s one of these species that’s not so abundant yet that we can probably catch. Versus something like multiflora rose or Japanese honeysuckle where it’s pretty much everywhere and very hard to control, this one has some chance that we can catch it and have a good success story on eradicating this or at least knocking it back quite a ways in Ohio. Says Kirschbaum.

Last year, the forest service treated a five acre patch that had been growing quite contentedly in Wayne National Forest for over 30 years. Kirschbaum drove over to see whether any Kudzu survived the herbicide treatment.

“By and large actually this looks pretty darn good. Just from the road here, we’ll go up and look at the top. I mean this was just at thick mat of Kudzu, this whole roadside.” Says Kirschbaum.

The herbicide was working well at the top, too.

“It was head high in here, on top of this hill, before we put the goats in.”

They tried goats a couple years ago

“They’ll eat everything.”

But shifted to herbicide last year.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect to be honest, because the herbicide we used was not one that has been used a lot around here. I guess it was maybe more successful than I had thought.” Says Kirschbaum.

Though no one seems to be planting Kudzu these days, the Iron Furnace group has still hit a few snags in its eradication plan. The Lawrence County Airpark has decided it likes its Kudzu. Still, Kirschbaum is buoyed by the success at Wayne National Forest.

“It hasn’t really begun to eat, what do they say? “The vine that ate the south?” It hasn’t “ate the North” yet!” Says Kirschbaum.

Jonathan Hickman, WOSU News.

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