It’s always ironic for people to accuse other species of being invasive.
Not only are we the most invasive species on the planet, we are the ones who bring non-native species to places they haven’t traditionally been — either intentionally or unintentionally.
The problem with invasives is they displace the species that used to thrive in a particular place. These native species are the ones that have developed over evolutionary time spans to create a natural balance.
Foreign species arrive with few natural predators or competition to keep them in check, and they soon overrun the place.
In the case of humans, for example, Americans have our own ugly record of killing and corralling the native people of this continent.
What about non-human invasives? Sometimes we invite them here, as is the case with kudzu. What a mistake. It has overtaken trees and hillsides all over Virginia, not to mention much of the South.
Kudzu was introduced in 1876 to Philadelphia as a garden novelty. A few years later, the vine was marketed widely in the Southeast as an ornamental for shade and later as a way to stop erosion on steep banks along roads.
By the mid 1940s, an estimated 3 million acres of kudzu had been planted with the help of government subsidies, according to Mother Nature Network.
But by 1953, kudzu was removed from the USDA’s list of suggested cover plants because it was spreading like wildfire. In 1970, it was officially declared a weed.
Today, kudzu covers a staggering 7.4 million acres in the South, with the heaviest infestations in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Kudzu is extremely resistant to both stress and drought, and it can grow a foot per day. With climate change, it is climbing north into Canada.
Kudzu came from subtropical and temperate regions of China, but those areas are not overrun because they have native species that can compete, like Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle.
It may be time to accept that invasives are our new natives, which is already the case for more species than we realize.
Herbicides have not proven effective in the fight against many invasives, including kudzu, and they just end up killing other species.
There’s little we can do, for example, about Japanese stilt grass, which makes up about 90% of the green in our yard, and is found all over in parks, on trails and in the woods.
The most effective defense against kudzu seems to be a small herd of goats or sheep, which according to the USDA, can polish off an acre of kudzu in a single day.
It turns out, however, that people can eat it, too! If we did, we could wipe out kudzu in no time.
The leaves can be cooked like collard greens, eaten raw in salad or baked. The bright purple flowers can be used in jellies, syrups, candy and even wine. The tuberous roots are filled with protein, fiber and iron and can be used as a starch.
I wonder how stilt grass tastes.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.