Kudzu makes it to Michigan

November 6, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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David C. Bos Homes of Spring Lake has been in business for 38 years and has survived four recessions, including the latest one, which Bos calls “the mother of them all.”

He joked that at times, as a member of the battered residential construction business, he has had the feeling of being “the last man standing.” But Bos said he is seeing “huge change” in the new home market, and his company is extremely busy.

He’s not about to be stopped by kudzu, an invasive plant that has smothered much of the landscape of the southeast United States and is now in Michigan — on one of Bos’ high-end home developments, in fact.

Bos was contacted this summer by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and advised that there was kudzu in his Boardwalk gated community on Lake Michigan about four miles north of South Haven. The SMLC wanted permission to access the kudzu and remove it, if possible.

“He did not need to ask twice for permission to come in,” said Bos.

Although Bos said he is “usually somewhat under the radar,” he has a track record as an environmentalist, including as former board member of Land Conservancy of West Michigan, and he hopes his immediate cooperation with the SMLC might give a green light to other land owners who might be approached by organizations trying to fight invasive plants.

“I want to encourage people, if they get that phone call, to say yes,” said Bos.

The kudzu vine’s “lightning-fast growth is the stuff of legend,” according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture online publication. It was introduced into the United States in the 1870s from eastern Asia as a means of controlling soil erosion and for feeding livestock. Some even planted it as an ornamental flower, but it soon spread out of control, destroying native plants and becoming one of the most noxious weeds in the Southeast, where it infests an estimated 8 million acres and is thought to be spreading by 150,000 acres each year. Millions are spent annually on herbicides and mowing.

In the South, where the climate favors the proliferation of kudzu, the vines can cover entire trees so thickly that the tree dies. Small houses and outbuildings that have been abandoned can be completely covered by the vines.

Last year, a report published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences announced that studies show kudzu adds enough nitrogen to the soil to double the rate of nitric oxide emissions, one of the key contributors to ozone pollution.

Although this is the farthest north kudzu has been found, Michigan isn’t necessarily in great peril from kudzu; other invasive species such as phragmites (a wetlands invader) and Japanese knotweed are of much more immediate concern to environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy/West Michigan and the SMLC. Those and other organizations are part of a project to identify and eradicate coastal invasive plants along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, with The Nature Conservancy/West Michigan leading the project. Funding for the Coastal Invasives Project has come mainly from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, plus grants from Sustain Our Great Lakes and private foundations such as the Meijer Foundation, according to Shaun Howard, coastal invasives coordinator with The Nature Conservancy/West Michigan in Comstock Park.

Randy Counterman, an assistant land steward with SMLC, said he and others cut down the kudzu at the Boardwalk, which “pretty much covered every square inch” of an area of almost half an acre along the shore. They then divided the patch into four test plots where they are testing methods of eradication, including herbicides.

The patch at the Boardwalk is obviously not out of control: Apparently, a sample of it was submitted to the University of Michigan Herbarium in 1994, according to Howard. The kudzu was brought to the attention of Howard’s organization by Suzanne DeVries-Zimmerman, a Hope College biology professor who found it on a class field trip in 2008. John Legge of The Nature Conservancy/West Michigan, who launched the Coastal Invasives Project, added it to their hit list.

Howard said he was told by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that it has had unconfirmed reports of kudzu in five other Michigan locations, none of those on the Lake Michigan shore.

Counterman said it is not known how the kudzu got started at the Boardwalk, but “we’re kind of guessing it was planted as an erosion control,” perhaps back in the 1980s when homeowners were losing their homes to severe erosion along the Lake Michigan bluffs.

“I don’t want to implicate the Boardwalk folks because they never even owned the land until like six years ago,” said Counterman.

Bos said his company has built about 1,100 new homes and condominiums in West Michigan since 1973. The company develops the land, and designs and builds homes using its own architects and construction staff. It also has a large renovation division headed by Bos’ son, in addition to an in-house brokerage, Blue West Properties, which Bos co-owns with its director of sales, Meghan R. Heritage.

In 2003, the Grand Valley Metro Council presented an awarded to David C. Bos Homes for the sustainable attributes of its Wildwood Springs development north of Grand Haven.

Bos, who has served as chair of the wetlands board in Spring Lake Township and helped write the ordinance pertaining to use of wetlands, said with good humor that he seems to be a strange mix in the minds of people who see developers as “perhaps damaging to the environment.”

While new home sales are still sluggish for many companies, Bos said, “we feel very fortunate” at David C. Bos Homes, which has an annual sales volume of about $6 million. “What we are experiencing is a large amount of people discovering West Michigan as a place to retire,” he said, especially on or near Lake Michigan.

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