Kudzu, one of the most invasive of all non-native species. (Credit: James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service/ Bugwood.org)

Kudzu is perhaps the most dramatic of all alien invaders. Growing at a rate of up to one foot per day, kudzu covers

nearly a quarter million acres of southern forests, according to the Forest Service’s best estimate. Massive taproots plunge deep into the soil as runners and rhizomes extend kudzu’s viney empire.

“It’s a destructive force in slow motion,” says James Miller of the Forest Service’s southern research station. It destroys biodiversity, growing among Japanese honeysuckle and privets — all co existing in a synergistic conglomeration. Like many invasive vines, kudzu shades and strangles, toppling trees with sheer biomass.

It was first introduced as an ornamental vine at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. “By historical accounts, it was the hit of the show,” Miller says. During the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu as salvation for eroding soil; seeds sold throughout the U.S. colonized the vine in forests and open land. In the mid-’50s, however, it became an official nuisance, and was removed from the list of permissible cover plants.

Known as the vine that ate the South, kudzu has claimed millions of acres across the country. One notorious kudzu infestation exists in Copper Hill, Tennessee, where the acres of vines planted to hide copper mining degradation can be seen from space.

— Carrie Madren