/ AmeriCorps, Restoring Wild Places,

Tackling Kudzu Together in the North Pacolet River Gorge

By Virginia Hunter, AmeriCorps Communications and Education Associate.

Plunging over a thousand feet in some places, the North Pacolet River Gorge is one of the most rugged locations in the Carolinas. From Saluda down to Tryon, Highway 176 follows the North Pacolet River (and the Saluda Grade Rail Line) through this gorge, winding its way past Pearson’s Falls, Melrose Falls, and the Norman Wilder Forest.

Rhododendrons in bloom at Melrose Falls in the North Pacolet River Gorge. Photo by Gordon Tutor.

Locals have long known there’s something special about this place, where a stunning patchwork of ephemerals like Sweet White Trillium blanket the forest floor in the spring. Indeed, scientists have confirmed the gorge as a biodiversity hotspot, with dozens of rare species documented so far, like the White Irisette, Diana Fritillary, and Scarlet Kingsnake.

Sweet White Trillium in bloom at Melrose Falls. Photo by Rachel Hess.

Like many steep roadsides in the South, during the 1930’s kudzu was planted along Highway 176 in a tragically misguided attempt to prevent erosion. For nearly a century now, kudzu has been destroying the natural beauty of the gorge, suffocating biodiversity on the land it covers. But the people of Polk County are taking action, and Conserving Carolina is helping.

Sections of the gorge are looking much healthier in recent years, thanks in large part to the Polk County Appearance Commission and the steadfast efforts of the Kudzu Warriors, Conserving Carolina’s Polk-based volunteer group. Since 2011, the Kudzu Warriors have met weekly to help eradicate kudzu on Conservancy land at Melrose Falls and the Norman Wilder Forest.

Before-and-after photos documenting the work of the Kudzu Warriors in the Norman Wilder Forest.

Kudzu is difficult enough to remove on flat, stable terrain, let alone on steep embankments. A few areas of Highway 176 in the gorge are too steep and dangerous, even for these intrepid volunteers.

But Conserving Carolina’s habitat restoration team is no stranger to tackling massive challenges. In 2019, the team received a matching grant from the Polk County Appearance Commission to begin removing kudzu along Highway 176.

Photos documenting the team’s first round of kudzu removal in 2020. By David Lee.

In the four years since, they’ve made significant progress on 176, controlling about 6 acres of kudzu on the most treacherous slopes.

Photos documenting progress from 2021 to 2022. By David Lee.

Last year, Conserving Carolina’s land management staff and AmeriCorps members labored over 90 hours on these acres. The team uses a variety of methods, including careful herbicide application and manual removal.

Progress in 2023. Areas sloping down to the road remain the most dangerous for the team to access. By David Lee.

In November, the Polk County Appearance Commission renewed their matching grant for a fifth consecutive year to support the habitat restoration team as they continue their battle against kudzu. With no natural predators in this region, kudzu vines can grow up to a foot a day. Success will take sustained efforts over many years. Conserving Carolina is grateful for community partners who are in this with us for the long haul.

Kudzu eradication site near the entrance to Melrose Falls, September 2023. Photo by Virginia Hunter.


Interested in becoming a Kudzu Warrior? Fill out a volunteer application.

Is kudzu taking over your land? Learn the latest best practices for DIY removal, or hire knowledgeable local landscapers.

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