The Vine that Ate the South
Kudzu was introduced to the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Countries were invited to build exhibits to celebrate the 100th birthday of the U.S. The Japanese government constructed a beautiful garden filled with plants from their country. The large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms of kudzu captured the imagination of American gardeners who used the plant for ornamental purposes.
Shofuso: The Japanese House and Garden is where kudzu was first planted on American soil. The Japanese garden dates to 1876, but the villa was added later.
Florida nursery operators, Charles and Lillie Pleas, discovered that animals would eat the plant and promoted its use for forage in the 1920s. Their Glen Arden Nursery in Chipley sold kudzu plants through the mail. A historical marker there proudly proclaims "Kudzu Developed Here."
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu for erosion control. Hundreds of young men were given work planting kudzu through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Farmers were paid as much as eight dollars an acre as incentive to plant fields of the vines in the 1940s.
Kudzu's most vocal advocate was Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia who promoted use of the vine to control erosion. Cope wrote about kudzu in articles for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and talked about its virtues frequently on his daily WSB-AM radio program broadcast from his front porch. During the 1940s, he traveled across the southeast starting Kudzu Clubs to honor what he called "the miracle vine."
Cope was very disappointed when the U.S. government stopped advocating the use of kudzu in 1953.
The problem with Kudzu is that it just grows too well! The climate of the Southeastern U.S. is perfect for kudzu. The vines grow as much as a foot per day during summer months, climbing trees, power poles, and anything else they contact. Under ideal conditions kudzu vines can grow sixty feet each year.
While they help prevent erosion, the vines can also destroy valuable forests by preventing trees from getting sunlight. This problem led Dr. James H. Miller of the U.S. Forest Service in Auburn, Alabama to research methods for killing kudzu. In eighteen years of research, he has found that one herbicide actually makes kudzu grow better while many have little effect. Miller recommends repeated herbicide treatments for at least four years, but some kudzu plants may take as long as ten years to kill, even with the most effective herbicides.
Dr. Errol G. Rhoden, along with other researchers at Tuskegee University, has successfully raised Angora goats in fields of kudzu which would otherwise be considered wasted land. The goats keep the kudzu from spreading further while producing profitable milk and wool products. Rhoden says constant grazing will eventually eradicate kudzu. If kudzu is to provide a continuing food source, animals must be removed from the fields occasionally to allow the vines time to grow.
Basket makers have found that the rubber-like vines are excellent for decorative and functional creations. Ruth Duncan of Greenville, Alabama makes over 200 kudzu baskets each year and says she doesn't mind that people call her the "Queen of Kudzu."
Current research may lead to new medicines made from kudzu, but for now only hamsters and mice can benefit from these drugs. Research with laboratory animals at Harvard Medical School has revealed that a drug extracted from kudzu root may help in the treatment of alcoholism. The drug is based on a 2,000 year old Chinese herbal medicine. Several years of testing may be required before the drug can be made available for human consumption.
In China and Japan, ground kudzu root (called kuzu) has been a common ingredient in foods and medications for centuries. Kudzu is respected and enjoyed there. It's far more versatile than say, turnips. But kudzu grows better in the South than it does in its native lands. Its natural insect enemies were not brought to the U.S. with it.
That's why visitors to the South are sometimes awe-struck by scenic vistas which reveal miles and miles of seemingly endless vines.
Southerners just close their windows at night to keep the kudzu out.
All images by D L Ennis