Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Those who live or have traveled in the Deep South have, no doubt, seen kudzu. Some would insist that you don’t have to seek out this plant, but just look out the window while cruising down the highway. It’s really quite lovely “” lush green vines that cover everything within reach. And since the plant can grow as much as a foot a day in the summer, whatever hasn’t been completely covered just might have disappeared by the time you pass that way again.
Kudzu isn’t native to North America. It first appeared in the United States back in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A variety of countries set up exhibits reflecting their homelands. The Japanese exhibit featured a garden that included plants from their country, among them kudzu. With its large leaves and sweet-smelling blossoms, the plant captured considerable attention. Americans began wondering how it would do in their own gardens.
Here’s a brief look into the botanical history of this prolific plant. Approximately 15 known species of kudzu exist, and researchers generally agree that the plant originated in China, Indochina, Malaysia, Oceania, and the Indian subcontinent.
For more than 2,000 years, Asian cultures have valued kudzu. Early Chinese records reveal that kudzu roots were dried and used in medicines as early as 1578, and a century later people were using the plant’s fiber to make “grass” cloth and paper. It wasn’t until the 1700s that kudzu made its way to Japan.
Despite repeated introductions, it isn’t known to have been established in Africa. It has, however, been successfully introduced into South America, Switzerland, and Australia. Oddly, nowhere but in the southeastern United States did kudzu become an ecological and financial pest.
As noted above, kudzu first appeared in the United States in 1876. In 1883 it was displayed again, this time at the New Orleans Exposition. At first, kudzu seedlings were planted primarily as ornamental vines and to scent and shade the porches and courtyards of Southern homes.
Noted botanist David Fairchild, working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had first seen kudzu in Japan, and he was intrigued by the possibility of growing it. He was so taken with the plant’s beauty that, in 1902, he planted seedlings in his own garden in Washington, D.C. Thirty-six years later, he wrote about how much he regretted this, because “kudzu grew all over the bushes and climbed the pines, smothering them with a mass of vegetation which bent them to the ground and became a tangled nuisance.” He grumbled that even after spending many years and considerable money trying to eradicate the pesky stuff, when he finally sold the place, kudzu still thrived in the yard.
By 1907, growing kudzu for cattle fodder had sparked the interest of American farmers. C.E. Pleas, a Florida nursery operator and farmer, was delighted to find that his farm animals relished eating it. Thus, he became a promoter of kudzu, growing 35 acres of it to sell as fodder, plus rooted kudzu cuttings to market through mail-order catalogs.
Word of the plant began to get around. During the Great Depression, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service encouraged the planting of kudzu for erosion control. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired hundreds of men needing employment in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi’s Piedmont regions to plant kudzu for the government.
In addition to this, starting in the 1940s, the Soil Erosion Service paid farmers approximately $8 an acre to plant kudzu. This resulted in more than 1.2 million acres of headaches. To give you an idea of the amount of kudzu planted, one study shows that between the years 1935 and 1941, nurseries produced somewhere between 73 and 85 million seedlings.
Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, receives some of the credit for spreading the word about this fantastic plant in a column he wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on his daily radio show, which he broadcast from the front porch of his farm. In his 1949 book, Front Porch Farmer, he claimed that growing kudzu would allow farmers “to adopt a life of leisure and relaxation, as this new crop works while you sleep.” That’s not exactly how it happened.
By the early 1950s, kudzu had become a major nuisance. It had spread rapidly throughout the South because of the long growing season, warm climate, and plentiful rainfall. It provided an extraordinary example of what can happen when a species is introduced outside its normal habitat and away from its usual diseases and predators.
In 1953 the United States Department of Agriculture removed kudzu from the list of plants permissible under the Agricultural Conservation Program. Then in 1962, the Soil Conservation Service recommended that kudzu be limited to areas far removed from developed areas. (Even so, Atlanta still has to be vigilant against more kudzu attacks.)
In 1970 the USDA listed kudzu as a common weed. And 1998 brought the final indignity “” the U.S. Congress listed kudzu as a federal noxious weed.
That didn’t mean the end of kudzu, of course. Estimates indicate that as much as 7 million acres of land may still be infested with it. The plant has spread as far north as Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Connecticut, and as far west as east Texas and central Oklahoma. The unlucky states bearing the heaviest load of kudzu are Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
You can still see kudzu growing around many old, collapsed Southern homesteads. Many of the structures created by man, such as houses and barns, fences, signs, and telephone poles, have disappeared under the onslaught. The problem is that it just grows too well. Under ideal conditions, the vines can grow 60 feet a year.
Wherever kudzu exists it seems determined to overwhelm all of the other vegetation. Few plants can survive for long when enshrouded by kudzu. Death by strangulation isn’t the cause, but when kudzu blankets the trees and shrubs under a dense canopy, so little light filters through to the vegetation below that it ultimately dies.
Killing kudzu is successful only for persistent landowners. Cutting and grazing isn’t enough, because kudzu’s large storage tubers keep sending out new runners. According to government sources, “Total control or eradication of kudzu can be up to a 10-year endeavor, usually involving the use of herbicides.” And they caution farmers that unless the adjoining neighbors also eradicate, the pest will soon be climbing the fence and knocking on your door.
Not every Southerner is committed to banishing kudzu from the face of the earth. Many have learned to live with it, and a few have used kudzu to provide a little money. Alabama basket maker Ruth Duncan uses the rubber-like vines for creating baskets, in sizes from small to gigantic. In South Carolina, Nancy Basket makes paper from it. Diane Hoots of Georgia has developed her own company to market her kudzu products “” among them kudzu blossom jelly and syrup, kudzu baskets, and books. These represent only a few examples of how folks have made use of a plant that over the years has been labeled both as a panacea and a pest.