Southbound #2: The Vine That Ate the South

Author’s note: For non-U.S. readers, kudzu (also known as kuzu) is an East Asian vine that in the U.S. is an invasive, introduced plant known to devour whole sections of the landscape in the southeastern U.S.

Whole.

kudzucreep.gif

If you’ve never seen what kudzu can do, look here.

***

Kudzu grows on roadbanks
And up on power poles
I don’t know who brought it here
but God rest your soul
brought it here to keep the blessed soil from washin’ away
how could they know that kudzu grows at least a foot a day?

Kudzu grows a foot a day, if it grows at all
it can climb the highest tree up or through a wall
don’t set too close to it if you got nothin’ to do
cause if you set there for too long, it will cover you

– “Kudzu,” from folksinger Dave Waldrop’s 2004 album, Freedom

Whatever battle there was to keep kudzu from all but taking over the South, the battle’s over for now, and kudzu won.

In our part of the world kudzu is just there, just endlessly there, on the roadsides and up over power poles. In summer it devours. In winter it bleakens, leaving spooky, leafless skeletons as atmospheric as Spanish moss, if less elegant.

kudzu_bus.jpg

As local horticulturist and landscaper Allen Bergal can tell you, it’s a misconception that kudzu can grow up to a foot a day. As under ideal conditions, kudzu grows two feet a day. In two years of studying the plant he learned that if you stand in a quiet field at night, you can hear it growing.

Ground zero for what’s arguably the most infamous and invasive weed south of the Mason-Dixon Line was the Centennial International Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876, the first official World’s Fair held in the U.S. Ten million people attended. Countries had exhibit space, and Japan’s exhibit was a garden of native Asian plants. One climbing vine particularly caught the attention of American gardeners with its bunches of grape-colored blossoms and large, shapely leaves.

This was no ordinary ornamental, its fans proclaimed. It was an edible leafy green as well as fodder for cows and goats. In Asia its powdered root was a fast-dissolving cooking starch (it didn’t even leave any lumps!) and a traditional remedy for acid stomach. A natural wonder, kudzu could feed people and animals, treat illness, and even make a beautiful purple flower.

And wouldn’t it look great in your garden?

kudzu_flowers.jpg

And so kudzu arrived. It began appearing in American gardens (and even garden catalogs) as fascinated gardeners hoped to grace their fences and front porches with its scented purple blooms. The vine was hardly a scourge in the 19th century, and its presence was still limited, although surely more than one gardener south of Maryland noted that kudzu wanted not merely to adorn the trellis but to devour her house from doormat to chimney.

More than 50 years after the first appearance of kudzu in the U.S. came kudzu’s true apostles. The World’s Fair had only introduced kudzu to the U.S. It took an army of shirtless and sweaty teenaged boys to bring on a full-scale, multi-state infestation.

They were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created by FDR after the Depression as a quasi-military work program that employed jobless young men from poor and rural areas. CCC workers were offered meals, housing and medical care and paid a dollar a day for outdoor construction work. More than half of them were only 17 years old, the lower age limit of the program. The Johnny Appleseeds of the foot-a-night vine were an army of underprivileged teenaged boys who sowed for their supper, planting kudzu everywhere as a government-sponsored erosion stopper.

Then in the 40s the government actually subsidized kudzu as a food crop, paying farmers to plant it by the acre. First a World’s Fair, then the CCC boys, and then the mile-a-minute vine was intentionally sown in the sunny South by the acre.

By the acre.

And the green invader (footloose and predator-free) found a real foothold in America at last. It crept over and under, swallowing fences and turning 50-foot trees into kudzu support structures. And as old barns and sun-baked roadsides were devoured by the dozens, by 1953 the governmentfinally  stopped advocating the planting of kudzu. It would be twenty years before the USDA would officially declare it a weed.

It took an unwary U.S. awhile to realize what happens when strange operators enter an ecosystem: New arrivals lack the predators that kept them in check back home, and sometimes find new advantages that make them misbehave in ways they wouldn’t where they came from. Back home in East Asia, kudzu isn’t a menace swallowing the landscape.

Back home in East Asia, kudzu has two natural predators, both beetles, that help keep it in check. The vine is no pest in China, and according to the Magazine of Culture and Life Sciences, one popular variety of Chinese kudzu is nearly extinct due to overharvesting for food and use in folk medicine.

But here it’s Kudzilla, The Vine That Ate the South to the tune of seven million acres, an area equal to about 20 percent of the entire state of North Carolina.

Kudzu is uniquely destructive here for multiple reasons. It’s able to photosynthesize efficiently in high light intensities, so it continues to grow (and grow, and GROW) even in the brutal heat of a southern summer, when other plants’ biochemistry tells them to slow down and just survive. It also has a creepy vegetable “muscle” on its stem that allows it to turn its leaves edgewise to the sun at the top of a canopy, and to gradually turn to face the sun flat-on at the bottom of the canopy, thereby getting sun everywhere in the mass of growth. It’s that “muscle” that helps kudzu climb straight up trees they way it does so infamously, and so well.

And as a vine, kudzu doesn’t need to waste energy growing a trunk, branches or other support. It uses other things for that, pretty much anything to hand including your great-granny’s old mule barn. Its roots are large and full of high-energy starch, enabling them not only to thicken up a vegetable stew but to store vast amounts of energy that help them survive drought, freezing, fire, an entire region’s concerted efforts to kill them, etc.

No biological or chemical agent yet discovered can stop kudzu, and at least one herbicide actually makes it grow even faster. The vines don’t even die in the winter here; only the leaves do.

So only two things really stop a nearly literal kudzu takeover of the U.S. landscape: The plant’s ineffective seed, which is only 10% viable (though it can lie dormant for years before sprouting, much like the monster in The Blob) and the cold of climes farther north (I’m thinking of The Blob again), which so far draws the Kudzu Line not too far below the Mason-Dixon Line.

But the vine may not be a uniquely southern scourge for much longer. It’s recently been discovered as far north as Clackamas County, Oregon, and has appeared in more than 30 counties up in Illinois.

Illinois, we are praying for you.

There’s miles and miles of kudzu, down in Dixie Land
it grows well in water and on any kind of land
now it’s started to grow up North, at least that’s what they say
and the folks up there can set and watch it grow a foot a day.

Kudzu doesn’t just eat the South, it’s also a food that Southerners can eat. Get it right here in Asheville as a white powder called “kuzu root starch.” Six bucks will get you 3.5 ounces in a little purple packet at Earth Fare.

kuzu.jpg

You’ve heard of Jack’s beanstalk, well I’ll tell you the truth
instead of a beanstalk, Jack set out kudzu
set it out at suppertime and then to sleep he lay
it had grown up to the sky by the break of day.

Kudzu grows a foot a day, if it grows at all
it can climb the highest tree up or through a wall
don’t set too close to it when you got nothin’ to do
cause if you set there for too long, it will cover you.
if you set there for too long, kudzu’ll kudzu you.

(Special thanks to Asheville horticulturist and Bountiful Cities Project volunteer Allen Bergal!)

5 responses to “Southbound #2: The Vine That Ate the South

  1. Your post is very interesting, and I love your poem. We’ve noticed the terrible Kudzu infestation here in the Asheville area. We moved here from NJ about 2 years ago.

    We live in Leicester, just up the road from Asheville. Last month we noticed the spreading of Kudzu on the vacant land next to us. It had just developed and had grown to about a 100 square feet spread in about a months time. My husband sprayed Bayer Brush Kill over a period of about 3 days and pulled as much of the root up as would come up about a foot in length. (We understand it can go as deep as 12 feet) It appears dead, but I don’t trust that it really is. I’m concerned about the seed pods I saw on it and wonder if they will survive and re-seed itself.

    Do you have any information on what to do to be sure it is really dead?

    Sending email from my email program is temporarily disabled, though I can receive email. So if you respond to my email address, I won’t be able to get back to you until I get my Outlook Express reinstalled. You can find me on facebook though under Patricia Palermo Werner.

    Thanks!

  2. I’m doing a presentation for my science class about invasive species (I chose Kudzu, obviously) and I just wanted to thank you, your little article was much more informative than anything else I found on the web. I’ll be sure to site you in the bibliography.

  3. Pingback: Kudzu Faith « Gloriadelia

  4. Jennifer,thanks for crediting me with the lyrics. Your article is excellent. I have been surprised how much people like “Kudzu”.
    Dave

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