Creeping kudzu spreads so fast you can see it grow

It creeps over abandoned buildings, automobiles, and even railroad cars. It climbs to the top of 100-foot trees and pushes onto idle farmland.

''It'll climb on you if you stand there all day,'' says Jim Montgomery, executive vice-president of the Southern Forest Institute.

For years Southern farmers and tree growers have been watching kudzu, a tenacious vine that spreads so fast you can actually see it move. They say it gets in their way, smothering marketable trees and covering usable, idle farmland.

US forester Jim Miller, who works in Auburn, Ala., recalls the morning he watched kudzu on a hillside. ''That was the first time I'd ever seen a plant that I actually saw grow,'' he says.

Now, however, the South is preparing to declare war on the proliferous vine. The US Forest Service is testing a variety of chemicals, including some controversial ones, to determine which do the best job of killing kudzu. Getting at the root of the problem is literally the key.

''Kudzu is a real toughie,'' says Mr. Miller. Its roots can grow up to 12 feet long and up to 5 inches in diameter. Unless the root is killed, it will come back, he says.

Miller estimates kudzu has covered some 2 million to 7 million acres in 13 Southeastern states - much of it usable farm or timberland - since it was promoted by the federal government in the 1920s and '30s as a useful way to slow soil erosion in gullies.

And it is moving westward and southward from these states. The kudzu tentacles now extend into Oklahoma and are moving south into central Florida, Miller says.

''It's unreal over here,'' says private forester Ronnie True of Monroeville, Ala. ''It's everywhere.'' In Carrolton, Ga., the vine has covered several acres of timberland belonging to Felton and Josephine Denney.

''We're fighting it,'' says Mrs. Denney. She and her husband are among tree farmers trying chemicals to kill kudzu. The US Forest Service has six test plots in Alabama and Georgia and is encouraged with preliminary findings from the first of year of the three-year project.

But one of the chemicals being tested is the controversial 2,4,5-T, which has gained considerable national attention because of its use in the so-called Agent Orange, a herbicide used in Vietnam to destroy vegetation. Numerous lawsuits have been filed by Vietnam veterans claiming damages from exposure to it. The Environmental Protection Agency has temporarily barred the US Forest Service from using it on pastureland or forests.

Underbrush, not kudzu, is the main obstacle to greater harvesting of trees in the Southeast, says William Boyer of the US Forest Service in Auburn, Ala. But kudzu has stymied many farmers and tree farmers who have ''thrown up their hands saying it can't be stopped,'' says Miller.

The current research is aimed at helping convince people that it can be stopped, he says. Herbicides against kudzu have been on the market for years, but little research had been done on which work best.

Kudzu was brought to the United States from Japan, where its roots have long been the source for a variety of foods and have been used in papermaking. Its leaves have been used in medicines. Kudzu has not been used to make commercial products in the US.

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