Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Channing Cope and the Making of a Miracle Vine*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Channing Cope and the Making of a Miracle Vine*

Article excerpt

As Kim Todd notes in her award-winning book, Tinkering with Eden (2001), exotic or alien species have an important yet poorly understood place in the environmental history of the United States. "Since Europeans began settling the area we now call America, exotic species have flooded in, becoming so prevalent that many Americans can't say which plants and animals are native and which not.... Currently more than forty-five hundred exotic creatures buzz, creep, and wind their way over American soil and each has a very specific, compelling history" (pp. 3-4). She argues that the study of exotics is compelling because of what it says not just about the organism but also about the relationship between humans and other species.

Todd (2001) also points out that, although scientists are increasingly aware of the economic and ecological costs posed by exotics, few scholars have looked critically at why people brought these species to the United States in the first place. A significant share of non-native organisms found their way to America accidentally, but influential social actors and groups engineered many of the nation's most enduring biological introductions. They sought to reshape their natural world to fulfill certain cultural visions and goals (Dunlap 1997; Kiracofe 1998; Hall 2001). Many of these goals were driven by economic gain, as evident in the importation of honey-producing bees and fur-bearing nutria. Other creatures, such as the starling and the pigeon, were introduced in an attempt to reproduce a European sense of place in the New World (Todd 2001). There is a need to examine the role played by humans not only in spreading nonindigenous species but also in shaping how the public perceives and values these organisms.

Among the United States' current list of most unwanted organisms is the fast-growing Asian vine called "kudzu" (Pueraria lobata). Kudzu is a climbing perennial with broad, deciduous leaves that grow in groups of three along semiwoody stems. This leguminous plant "thrives in areas with a minimum annual rainfall of 40 inches, a long growing season, and a mild winter" (Winberry and Jones 1973, 61). Under these optimal conditions, the plant can grow 60 feet in a season and as much as a foot per day. Although kudzu produces seeds, most growth occurs vegetatively. New root crowns emerge when nodes or joints along expanding vines come in contact with loose, moist soil. The vine produces a taproot that can measure 6 feet or more in length and weigh as much as 400 pounds (O'Brien and Skelton 1946; Miller and Edwards 1983). These roots "contain carbohydrates reserves that permit the plant to survive repeated mowing and/or herbicide applications" (Britton, Orr, and Sun 2002, 327). In addition, kudzu tubers can lie dormant for several years and then suddenly generate new vines, often to the frustration of unsuspecting landowners (Hoots and Baldwin 1996).

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kudzu spreads about 120,000 acres annually, and control costs have increased by nearly $6 million each year (Becker 2001). Rates of kudzu expansion are expected to increase with global warming (Rogers and McCarthy 2000). The exact spatial distribution of kudzu in America is unknown, although attempts have been made to use remote sensing and ecological modeling to estimate the range of infestation (Burnell, Byrd, and Bruce 2003; Cimino 2003). Expansive kudzu growth is most commonly found in the southeastern United States, as reflected in John Winberry and David Jones's (1973) widely cited map (Figure 1). But the vine has been sighted in at least half of the fifty states, as far north as New York and as far west as Oregon, where it has made the state's "terrible ten" pest list (Mitchner 2001; Bahrampour 2002).

Kudzu has the ability to live in most soil types and under a wide range of conditions, including periods of drought (Winberry and Jones 1973). Janet Lembke (2001, 130) captures the aggressiveness of kudzu best when she writes: "Throughout the South, kudzu creeps with stealthy swiftness over brush piles and fences. …

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