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Kudzu (Pueraria montana): History, Physiology, and Ecology Combine to Make a Major Ecosystem Threat

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Kudzu,Pueraria montana(Lour.) Merr. varietylobata(Willd.) was introduced into the United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, PA. Subsequently, it was planted widely to reduce soil erosion by the Soil Erosion Service and Civilian Conservation Corp. Over 85 million seedlings of kudzu were provided to landowners by government agencies in the southeast in the first half of the 20th century. In 1953, kudzu was removed from the list of approved plants for erosion control, in 1970 it was officially labeled a weed, and in 1997 it was placed on the Federal Obnoxious Weed List. Its rapid elongation rates, high leaf area indices, high photosynthetic rates, and frequent rooting at stem nodes make kudzu an aggressive competitor with native shrubs and trees. Estimates are that kudzu currently covers 3 million hectares throughout the eastern United States and is spreading by 50,000 ha per year. Despite widespread anecdotal statements, little quantitative information is available regarding the ecological effects of kudzu. The ability of kudzu to overtop and shade forest trees, fix atmospheric nitrogen, and emit isoprene suggest that it may have substantial effects on native forest biodiversity, forest nitrogen cycles, watershed nitrogen saturation, freshwater eutrophication, and regional air quality. Kudzu's growth rate increases strongly in response to increased CO2, and without the constraint of allocation to woody tissue this response may increase the competitive dominance of kudzu as atmospheric levels of CO2increase. This fact, combined with its sensitivity to cold temperatures, implies that kudzu may increase its range in future warmer, high-CO2environments. The lack of quantitative investigations on the ecological effects of kudzu is a severe impediment to our understanding of its current and future effects on native plant and animal communities and forest ecosystems.
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Keywords: biocontrol; biodiversity; exotic invasive plants; global change; isoprene emission; nitrogen cycle

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Biology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA

Publication date: 2004-09-01

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