Field of kudzu monsters Photo: Kerry Britton/U.S. Forest Service/USDA [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

If you've ever taken a road trip through Georgia or Alabama, you've noticed the expansive fields of kudzu from which towering leafy figures emerge. These surreal "kudzu monsters" are fascinating to look at, but their comical appearance belies a sobering ecological reality.

The widespread domination of this invasive Asiatic vine has serious environmental consequences for the rich yet fragile biodiversity of the southern United States.

Kudzu's initial introduction into the U.S. in 1876 was intended to provide farmers in Pennsylvania with a cover plant to combat soil erosion. A few years later, the vine was marketed widely in the Southeast as an ornamental for shading homes and porches. By the mid 1940s, an estimated 3 million acres of kudzu had been planted with the help of government subsidies.

As the South's economy and industry shifted in the mid-20th century, however, rural farmers began moving away for jobs in more urban areas, leaving their kudzu plants behind to multiply unchecked. Spreading at a rate of about 2,500 acres per year, it wasn't long before the plant earned the nickname "the vine that ate the South."

By 1953, kudzu was struck from the USDA's list of suggested cover plants, and in 1970, it was officially declared a weed.

Today, kudzu covers a staggering 7.4 million acres in the South, with the heaviest infestations concentrated in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Slope of kudzu monsters Photo: Katie Ashdown [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

So, what is it about this intriguing vine that makes it such an ecological nuisance?

Well, first and foremost, kudzu is extremely resistant to both stress and drought, and it can easily survive in soils with low amounts of nitrogen. In addition, it can grow really, really fast. Although older Southerners swear the invasive pest can grow a mile a minute, many horticulture and extension sites instead say it can grow a foot a day. These qualities make it an exceptionally competitive species, especially when pitted against the more fragile indigenous species of the region.

To maximize photosynthetic productivity, kudzu goes to great lengths (literally) to make sure its leaves have optimal exposure to the sun — even if it means smothering other plants. Because of this propensity for structural parasitism, it's common to see a blanket of kudzu draped over trees, telephone poles, unkempt buildings or small forests. In more extreme cases, kudzu has been known to break branches and uproot entire trees.

Kudzu monsters Photo: J.K. York/Shutterstock

Kudzu came to the U.S. from the subtropical and temperate regions of China (and later Japan and Korea), but those areas don't experience the same devastation as the southern U.S. because the ecosystems have existing species that can compete with kudzu, like Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle. Because the Southeast is not naturally equipped with the same system of check and balances, intentional methods for controlling or removing kudzu must be employed.

The most obvious methods include regular mowing and herbicidal use, but because those efforts have yielded little long-term success over time widespread efforts to control kudzu have increasingly turned to more biological treatments, such as bacterial blights, insects that eat the vine and even animal grazing. With a small herd of goats or sheep, an acre of kudzu can be polished off in a single day, as the video below from the USDA explains.

Goats and sheep shouldn't have all the fun, though! Believe it or not, there are plenty of human-friendly kudzu recipes that are surprisingly palatable. Although the vines are not edible, pretty much everything else is.

The leaves can be cooked like collard greens, eaten raw in a salad or baked in casseroles or quiches. The flowers — bright purple and gorgeous — can be used in jams, jellies, syrups, candy and even wine. The tuberous roots, which are filled with plenty of protein, fiber and iron, can be ground up and used as a starch for cooking.

kudzu vines with flowers emerging The leaves, flowers and roots of kudzu are edible; the vines are not. (Photo: tamu1500/Shutterstock)

Thick meadow of kudzu monsters Photo: Tim Mainiero/Shutterstock

Despite their ecological threat, kudzu and the abstract sculptures they form are an impressive display of nature's power. Continue below to see more of these kudzu monsters:

Large tree covered in kudzu Photo: Mary Madigan [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Kudzu covers a forest Photo: Robert Michalove [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Kudzu monsters in South Carolina Photo: Cathleen A Clapper/Shutterstock

A blanket of kudzu Photo: Danny E Hooks/Shutterstock

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in June 2015.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.

The story behind kudzu, the vine that's still eating the South
These leafy figures may be fascinating, but their comical appearance belies a sobering ecological reality.