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Finding New Uses for the 'Vine That Ate the South'

Visually striking and aggressively invasive, kudzu has been choking the Southeast for decades. Now, designers, chefs, and activists want to find ways to make it useful.
April 25, 2021, 9am PDT | Diana Ionescu | @aworkoffiction
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Writing in Southerly Magazine, Ayurella Horn-Muller describes the influence and potential of an infamous, invasive vine known for choking Southeastern landscapes. Kudzu, a plant with "bristly, yellow-green vines and heart-shaped leaves," covers an estimated 7.4 million acres in the American Southeast and "has a reputation of being aggressively damaging to biodiversity, economies, and ecosystems." Now, writes Horn-Mueller, "after decades of being a thorn in the side of U.S. cities, rural towns, as well as the agriculture, lumber and forest product industries, kudzu’s uses are expanding — now including building materials, cooking, healing, climate action, and even cultural advocacy."

First introduced in the U.S. at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair, kudzu was planted decoratively and, later, to prevent soil erosion. Far from its old reputation as "Savior of the South," some are now starting to refer to it as "the vine that ate the South" due to its "ability to grow anywhere, up to a foot per day and sixty feet during the growing season."

Because it chokes the plants around it and can even impact the local nitrogen cycle in the air, kudzu contributes to ozone pollution. Economically, the damage is severe. Controlling the infestation "is already costing the forest product industry $500 per hectare per year," and an AECOM study in Oklahoma projected that the plant's spread "could result in a loss of $167.9 million" over the next five years.

"In lieu of policies to control the spread of the invasive plant, artists, chefs, and designers are finding creative ways to harvest and repurpose the plant." Designers Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann, founders of After Architecture, "saw [the plant's] overabundance as a possibility" to develop kudzu and other invasive plants into useful building materials. Restaurants like Kudzu Seafood Company in Macon, Georgia are experimenting with chips and other dishes made from the kudzu root, a popular edible in Japan.

"[Paulina] Harron, the researcher who led the study on the plant’s economic impact, said that these are important steps towards the bigger goal of increasing the public’s knowledge of and participation in invasive species management." While finding new uses for the plant may not mitigate the infestation issue, "using a combination of management methods is useful in controlling their populations."

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Published on Saturday, March 20, 2021 in Southerly Magazine
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