No plant is as demonized as kudzu. The invasive species — native to Japan and intentionally introduced to the US in 1876 — has spread voraciously across southern US forests, smothering trees and turning entire landscapes into seas of vine. It's considered such a threat, in fact, that it's earned a truly terrifying nickname: "the vine that ate the South."
Except kudzu hasn't eaten the South at all.
A fascinating new Smithsonian Magazine article by horticulturist Bill Finch points out that, contrary to common claims that kudzu has taken over 7 million acres and seizes 150,000 more a year, the US Forest Service estimates it only occupies some 227,000 acres in total — about 0.1 percent of the South's forests. Far less infamous invasive plants such as Asian privet and Japanese honeysuckle cover 14 and 45 times as much of the South's forests, respectively.
The hyperbolic kudzu numbers, Finch finds, can be largely traced to a single garden club pamphlet published years ago. And our fears of kudzu are stoked because the plant grows most effectively along roadsides, enveloping the highly visible, sun-exposed edges of forests. But it doesn't do nearly as well in shady forest interiors — so the landscape we see through our windshield dramatically overstates kudzu's true extent.
But the irony is that while invasive plant researchers aren't especially worried about kudzu per se, they are extremely concerned about the many other invasive plants spreading quickly across the South — and the rest of the country. Kudzu is, if anything, a distraction.
"That, perhaps, is the real danger of kudzu," Finch writes. "Our obsession with the vine hides the South. It veils more serious threats to the countryside, like suburban sprawl, or more destructive invasive plants such as the dense and aggressive cogon grass and the shrubby privet."