Man vs. kudzu at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh

Kudzu, the Asian vine that became a Southern scourge because of its ability to swallow entire landscapes, threatens to do so at the N.C. Museum of Art.

A relatively contained patch of kudzu was given room to spread last year when workers cleared trees and underbrush to replace a sewer line through the museum’s 160-acre park. Seemingly overnight, the dense vines had covered about a 4-acre area, jumping over a city greenway and climbing 4-story-tall trees.

“It’s like a wildfire that just made a jump,” said Dan Gottlieb, the museum’s deputy director who is in charge of planning and design.

Now the museum is fighting back, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the kudzu. It’s the early stages of a campaign that could take years to eradicate the vine and may never be totally successful.

Kudzu is one of several non-native invasive plants in the museum’s park, a mix of forest and meadow cut by the looping greenway and trails, and studded with sculptures and other outdoor art.

The property has a “pretty checkered past,” Gottlieb says, primarily as farmland, first for a prison and then for N.C. State University. The original forest was turned to pastures, and cows waded in House Creek, the stream that crosses the property.

When the livestock left, suburban weeds such as honeysuckle and Japanese stilt grass moved in. Privet, a sweet-smelling shrub now covered with white flowers, chokes the forest floor, while Callery pears, parent of the better-known Bradford pear, poke up in the meadows uninvited.

Restoring the park to a more natural condition will mean getting rid of these invasive species, or at least controlling them. And the one that suddenly moved to the top of the priority list is kudzu.

A symbol of the South

It’s fitting perhaps that a Southern art museum should so struggle with kudzu. The vine has become a symbol of the South, where it thrives and now covers about 8 million acres, and inspired much art, including poetry, photography and film. The museum park itself contains a work called “Invasive,” a vine pattern painted on the greenway trail.

Kudzu is a native of Japan, first brought to the United States for an international exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. It was eventually sold as feed for cattle and as an ornamental plant that would quickly cover a trellis and shade a porch.

Kudzu got a huge boost during the Great Depression, when the federal government recommended planting it to prevent erosion and provided millions of seedlings. One of its virtues was that it grew fast – up to a foot a day in the summer growing season – and it grew well on poor soil.

And it was hard to kill.

“It’s really an insidious species,” says Marshall Ellis, a biologist for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, who battles kudzu and other invasive species in the western part of the state. “It’s a different beast in the world of invasives.”

How to kill it

Gottlieb and others at the art museum consulted Ellis as they formulated their plan of attack. He told them to take a two-pronged approach: Physically remove the leaves and vines, then apply chemicals as the plant re-sprouts so that the herbicide gets to the plant’s thick, deep roots.

“You can burn it, can mow it, can graze it off with goats,” Ellis said. “But that won’t kill it.”

The museum decided against goats, and fire in a suburban environment with artwork nearby didn’t seem like a good idea.

Instead, crews are using a mowing machine and their hands to pull the vines from the ground, says Matt Conley, the museum’s site manager. For the vines that have climbed trees, crews are tying the ends to a utility vehicle and pulling them down.

Piles of kudzu vines along House Creek and the greenway trail show the fruits of the museum’s efforts so far. But, Conley said, “We’ve got a lot more ripping to do.”