Tolerance of subzero winter cold in kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata)

Heather A. Coiner, Katharine Hayhoe, Lewis H. Ziska, Jeff Van Dorn, Rowan F. Sage

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The use of species distribution as a climate proxy for ecological forecasting is thought to be acceptable for invasive species. Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) is an important invasive whose northern distribution appears to be limited by winter survival; however, kudzu’s cold tolerance thresholds are uncertain. Here, we used biogeographic evidence to hypothesize that exposure to − 20 °C is lethal for kudzu and thus determines its northern distribution limit. We evaluated this hypothesis using survival tests and electrolyte leakage to determine relative conductivity, a measure of cell damage, on 14 populations from eastern North America. Relative conductivity above 36% was lethal. Temperatures causing this damage averaged − 19.6 °C for northern and − 14.4 °C for southern populations, indicating kudzu acclimates to winter cold. To assess this, we measured relative conductivity of above- and belowground stems, and roots collected throughout the winter at a kudzu population in southern Ontario, Canada. Consistent with acclimation, the cold tolerance threshold of aboveground stems at the coldest time of year was − 26 °C, while stems insulated from cold extremes survived to − 17 °C—colder than the survival limits indicated by kudzu’s biogeographic distribution. While these results do not rule out alternative cold limitations, they indicate kudzu can survive winters north of its current distribution. For kudzu, biogeography is not a proxy for climatic tolerance and continued northward migration is possible. Efforts to limit its spread are therefore prudent. These results demonstrate that physiological constraints inform predictions of climate-related changes in species distribution and should be considered where possible.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)839-849
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • Climate equilibrium
  • Freezing tolerance
  • Global warming
  • Invasive species
  • Niche shift
  • Species distributions
  • Thermal acclimation


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