Tackling Massive Mounds of Kudzu; Research on 'Vine That Ate the South' under Way near Imperial

Article excerpt

JEFFERSON COUNTY * Thick vines that blanket the hillside along a highway near Imperial span nearly half a mile and cover trees so completely they look like green mounds.

Purple flowers that smell like grape Kool-Aid bloom within the vines, which hold hairy seed pods.

The vine is kudzu, a "perennial, semi-woody, exotic vine with invasive, uncontrollable, smothering growth" planted in Missouri decades ago for bank stabilization before its aggressive nature was known, according to the state's Department of Conservation.

The kudzu patch on the hill near Old Highway 21 and Missouri Route 21 is the biggest that Steven Callen, a St. Louis University biology graduate student, has seen in Missouri. Callen, a 2000 graduate of De Smet Jesuit High School, is studying the vine and its growth for his doctoral dissertation.

The trees shrouded by the kudzu could be dead already, he said, and it's creeping up telephone poles.

Missouri is on the northwestern edge of kudzu's spread into the country. It's more pervasive in the southeast, where it earned the nickname "the vine that ate the South" by pulling down power poles, snapping power lines and crushing buildings. It can grow up to a foot a day and 100 feet in a season.

About 2 million acres of forest land in the South is covered with kudzu, according to the University of Florida. The government paid farmers to plant kudzu for erosion control from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.

"This thing grows like you can't believe," said Allison Miller, associate biology professor at St. Louis University and Callen's adviser. "It chokes out all other native vegetation."

Callen is focusing his research a combination of pollination biology, climatic data and genomic analyses on this kudzu patch and another patch a few miles to the west. His project will also incorporate what he learned during a two-month fellowship this summer in Kunming, China, where kudzu is a native plant. He'll go back next summer to continue the research.

"Nobody knows how this population got here," Callen said of the Imperial patch. "And when I'm in the South, or wherever I am, and I ask people that question, nobody can tell me where it actually comes from. …


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