Earth lovers battle green alien


Kudzu: An Alabama couple trumpets the need to protect native species from voracious exotic plants.

June 11, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CAHABA HEIGHTS, Ala. - Driving along Red Mountain Highway, Bob Burks spotted the invasive alien. The leafy green monster long ago left its wooded lair for an embankment within sight of a suburban shopping center.

Burks pulled over for a closer look. The 82-year-old retired chemist named the beast. Wife Mary, a few months shy of 80, concurred. There's no mistaking this exotic pest. Predatory. Prolific. Pueraria lobata. Kudzu.

"When you see this wall of green crawling all over everything, it is like a science-fiction movie," she says, peering out the car window to the kudzu-covered slope.

"Either people don't realize what they are looking at, which is quite likely, or they wring their hands and say, `Oh, what to do,' and the kudzu grows merrily along."

For more than three decades, the Burkses have been alerting the masses to the dangers that kudzu and other alien plant species pose to native flora.

First seen at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, this grape-scented Japanese import found its way over the trellises of Southern porches. Horses and cattle grazed in its green pastures.

In 1933, federal conservationists promoted kudzu as a way to combat soil erosion. The government paid southern farmers as much as $8 an acre to plant the fast-growing legume.

Kudzu transformed the landscape of Alabama and the southeastern United States. It covers about 7 million acres from Massachusetts to Maryland to Florida, blanketing hillsides, entangling power lines and destroying trees. In the South, kudzu is as familiar as black-eyed peas and okra.

The plant, on the U.S. list of noxious weeds, reproduces at a rate of 120,000 acres a year.

"It's not going away," says James H. Miller, an ecologist at Auburn University who has been studying kudzu for 20 years. "Every national park, every national forest, every conservation area has kudzu on it.

"It's coming down your drain, your street, your neighborhood. All of us are restricted with what we can do on our natural lands. And our children's children will be restricted in what they can do."

When invasive plants overtake native ones, they can drive out an indigenous plant's food source or shelter and put it on the path to extinction. The land might become more vulnerable to flood, fire and pollution.

Miller attributed $340 million in lost forest productivity to the proliferation of kudzu.

"You're losing biodiversity and you're losing the uniqueness of any place because of these invasive species," says Ray Vaughan,an Alabama environmental lawyer.

"When you have these invasive species like kudzu, cogon grass and popcorn trees [an ornamental tree] ... you basically turn the wild world into a Wal-Mart parking lot. Think of every town, they all look the same."

In their eight decades on earth, Mary and Bob Burks have come to admire and greatly appreciate their piece of the planet.

"We belong to the group that likes the native plants and the native ecosystem because we believe the whole natural ecosystem is better off without these invasive aliens," says Bob, a genteel man with silver-rimmed glasses.

"Alabama is the last place anybody ever wants to come, the last place anybody ever heard of, the last place on Earth," Mary says. "It's a biologically diverse state. It's the garden of Eden, which we are busily destroying."

As a child growing up in Birmingham, the former Mary Ivy would return from a hike in the woods with a caterpillar on her arm or a snail in her hand and say, "Mama, isn't this beautiful?"

"And my mother was a very wise woman. She said, `Yes, dahlin,' " says Mary. "I was just born this way."

In the early 1960s, Mary and Bob read a piece in Harper's magazine about the population explosion and its impact on the environment.

"And bam! The light went on and it's been on ever since," says Mary, who raised the couple's son while volunteering for the local Audubon Society. "I'm not homocentric. I don't think people are the most important thing on the planet. We are part of the community of life."

In 1967, Mary founded the Alabama Conservancy to preserve the state's natural treasures. Among her first and most notable achievements was a campaign to win federal protection for a hardwood forest in northwestern Alabama.

The effort, which required the approval of Congress, resulted in the designation of the Sipsey Wilderness, which today includes 26,000 acres.

Over the years, as the Burkses worked to protect the flora of their home state, they began to learn about an insidious enemy, a host of exotic, invasive plants creeping through Alabama.

Kudzu might have been Public Enemy No. 1, but it was joined by other pests. Privet, a bushy tree with white blossoms and a blue-black berry. Akebia, a vine identified by a cluster of five round leaves.

"The North doesn't know it's coming," Bob whispers as he identifies an akebia patch in a Birmingham suburb.

Then there's Japanese honeysuckle, which has a pretty white blossom that "smells absolutely divine."

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