GATLINBURG, Tenn. — An old joke in the South is if you plant kudzu in your yard, it'll reach the front door before you do. The voracious vine from Asia has blanketed everything in its path for well over a century in many southern states.
In Sevier County, kudzu has exploded in areas impacted by the 2016 wildfires and grown to the point it's becoming dangerous.
"In these burned areas, it really took off. Kudzu grows very quickly. It can grow like 14 inches overnight. So what you end up with is a huge tangle," said Kristine Johnson, forester for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Johnson is accustomed to battling kudzu. Foresters work to prevent the exotic plant from twisting its way into the national park from property that neighbors the Smokies.
Now Johnson is part of an effort to teach others in Sevier County how to successfully tangle with a vine that just won't stop.
Keep Sevier Beautiful and other groups are hosting a one-hour "kudzu town hall" on Jan. 30, 2020, at the Sevierville Convention Center from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The goal of the free event is to bring neighbors together, teach people about the plant, and show them successful ways to stem the tide of kudzu.
"Kudzu is a challenge. It requires a lot of persistence. And it does not know where one yard begins or ends. It will quickly grow from one place to another and it requires a consistent unified effort across property boundaries," said Johnson.
The wildfires of 2016 helped fuel kudzu in several ways. The fires added nutrients to the ground, killed native plants, and opened new areas to sunlight the plant craves.
The 2,500 homes and businesses hit by the wildfire also stopped people from taking care of their yards. Mowing the grass is not a priority when the house is burned to its foundation.
"There are a lot of vacant lots. People are increasingly looking around and saying I didn't see this [amount of kudzu] before on my property. Kudzu will infest one lot and spread to other areas," said Johnson.
Kudzu does not only take over areas that burned in the past. It makes areas more likely to burn in the future. The vine is extremely flammable. Like lighting a fuse, kudzu can be a "ladder fuel" that sends flames on the ground to the tops of trees.
"A fire that might have stayed on the ground is not going to stay on the ground. It's going to go up into the canopy and become a more serious type of fire," said Johnson. "Kudzu also makes it impossible for firefighters to cut lines with tools and use bulldozers."
Another public safety risk is landslides. Kudzu was promoted long ago as a plant that could help reduce and control erosion. Ironically, it makes erosion worse and hides it.
"It covers the erosion up, but does not stop it. After a hard rain, you'll see muddy water running out beneath the kudzu," said Johnson.
The plant can weigh down trees and create hazards during ice storms. The vine eliminates habitats for native animals.
In recent years, kudzu is accompanied by another infestation: kudzu bugs. The invasive insects are an agricultural pest and a nuisance to homeowners as they swarm buildings when the weather cools in the fall.
"If you have a lot of kudzu nearby, you are going to have kudzu bugs trying to get in your house or business," said Johnson.
Johnson said it will take a lot of work and coordination, but it is possible to successfully tangle with the vine that never quits.
"People need to recognize the impact kudzu has and work together to control it. Because it isn't going to go away on its own."