11-14 years old: 1st place winner

Polk County, Strangled- Polk County Middle School

Kudzu is smothering Polk County, North Carolina. The vines grow 12 inches each day; creeping into roads, climbing trees, and suffocating other plants. Locals are finding unusual and productive uses for the invasive species, yet it continues to start wildfires and cloak farm fields (mountain of dead kudzu, right).

Kudzu was brought from clipped, ornamental Asian gardens to ditches and eroded areas of the United States in 1876. From 1935 through the 1950s, Southern farmers planted the foreign vine in an attempt to control erosion. Kudzu took off, spreading throughout the states. The farmers quickly realized their mistake, and they focused on the potential of the fast growing plant for other agricultural uses.

It was discovered that kudzu is high in protein, and has no effect on the color or taste of milk, butterfat or meat when fed to livestock.  Animals and their caretakers haven’t shown signs of allergies, and cows, horses, goats, and rabbits enjoy the vine and do well with it in their diet. In Polk County today, there are many who graze their animals on kudzu. Goats relish it, eating it fast and in large amounts. Citizens often mention the need for more of these animals whenever a conversation turns to kudzu. In Saluda, the highest elevated town in Polk County, kudzu is baled as a hay substitute and sent to droughtstricken areas or where traditional hay is scarce.

Kudzu is a widely available and nutritious food option for livestock. Cows who graze off of kudzu weigh close to the same as cows who graze on grass and are fed wheat supplements. The wheat is what gives them their bulk; however, which isn’t good for their digestive system. Kudzu has more protein than grass by itself, and its cheaper to use as a grazing crop since its so abundant and grows at a quick rate.

According to Patrick McLendon from the Polk County Agriculture Center, which holds farming and gardening classes as well as a farm food store and seasonal markets, many citizens are utilizing the crop in other ways. He describes the Kudzu Lady, who “actually brings products to the farm store, kudzu jelly, kudzu chai tea, hay, baskets and wreaths.” Matthew Wilson from Polk Fresh Foods, an initiative to bring farm products to local markets, described unique and productive uses of kudzu as well, saying “there is even kudzu root tea, kudzu syrup, and of course some folks use it for grazing their poultry and their goats, which is one sure fire way to kill it without using pesticides: by grazing till it won’t produce leaves, because after it can’t produce the leaves that send the nutrients to the roots it’ll die, though it takes a while.” If pesticides are used, other plants could be killed unintentionally as well.

Despite constant use of kudzu, it regenerates too quickly to keep in check. Mr. McLendon informed me that “the AG center is about a third covered in Kudzu,” which is “amazingly hard to get rid of.” Brian Rogers from the Polk County Forest Service said that “if we plant trees, kudzu strangles them.” Chocolate Drop Mountain, a small mountain on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was facing serious mudslide and erosion problems after it was clear cut. Kudzu was planted, but it quickly took over–sections of the roads are now covered.

Kudzu doesn’t stop at ground level. It scales tall trees in order to absorb sunlight with its broad leaves, and in the fall those leaves die and the vines become dry and brittle. Wildfires that occur because of the dead kudzu often engulf the entire forest canopy, and are difficult to put out. Getting kudzu out of tall trees is no easy task. On the ground, kudzu is just as hard to control. The large, woody root can get up to six feet wide and takes time to dig up (root as thick as a thumb, left).

Introducing foreign species to control environmental issues isn’t the only option. Without natural predators, kudzu rampaged across Polk County and beyond. Plants native to the Americas, such as the trumpet creeper; can be planted to control erosion instead of Kudzu. Large scale companies can begin producing kudzu products, and farmers can feed their livestock kudzu full time.  Answers flourish in Polk County, and if advertised and put into large scale practice–kudzu could be controlled.

I plan on submitting this article to the Tryon Daily Bulletin. I’ve chosen this local newspaper because a huge percentage of Polk County has access to and reads it. Teachers submit images from field trips and spirit days to this paper, which are often published. I want people young and old who associate themselves with agriculture in any form to understand the importance of containing kudzu, and I want to inspire them to do something about it.

Author Jeanne Ferran