By Richard L. Barnes
While driving though the southeast on our way to Florida recently, my wife, Pa, and I marveled at the invasive green alien plant that seems to be consuming the roadsides.
A quick Internet search revealed that the plant’s name is Kudzu and it now covers more than seven million acres of the deep south. Residents say that the vine grows so quickly it will cover anything that isn’t moving.
They often refer to Kudzu as the “Mile-A-Minute Vine,” the “Foot-A-Night Vine,” and “The Vine That Ate The South.”
Some folks think it is a native plant, but it actually took a lot of hard work to help Kudzu spread so widely. The plant was introduced to the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. 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 its country. The large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms of Kudzu captured the imagination of American gardeners who began using the plant for ornamental purposes.
And then two Florida nursery operators discovered that animals would eat the plant and promoted its use for forage in the 1920s. They sold Kudzu plants through the mail and a historical marker at one of their places of business proudly proclaimed “Kudzu Developed Here.”
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted the plant for erosion control, and hundreds of young men were put to work planting Kudzu. Farmers were paid as much as $8 an acre to plant fields of the vines in the 1940s.
Newspaper columnists and radio celebrities in the south promoted the use of the vine to control erosion. One broadcaster even traveled across the southeast forming Kudzu Clubs to honor what he called “the miracle vine.”
All of these folks were very disappointed when the U.S. government stopped advocating the use of Kudzu in 1953. The problem with the plant 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 in its path.
Under ideal conditions, Kudzu vines can grow more than 60 feet each year. While they do help prevent erosion, the vines also can destroy valuable forests by preventing trees from getting sunlight.
This problem led the U.S. Forest Service in Alabama to research methods for killing Kudzu. In 18 years they found that one herbicide actually makes Kudzu grow better, while many others have little effect.
Other researchers recommend repeated herbicide treatments for four years, but admit that some plants may take as long as 20 years to kill, even with the most effective herbicides.
Some scientists disagree with killing off Kudzu. They say it’s here, it’s free, and there are many uses for it. Researchers at one university have successfully raised Angora goats in fields of Kudzu which would otherwise be considered wasted land.
Basket makers have found that the rubber-like vines are excellent for decorative and functional creations. A Greenville, AL, woman makes more than 200 baskets each year and says she doesn’t mind that people call her the “Queen of Kudzu!”
A Georgia woman has developed unique basket styles incorporating curled vines.
A South Carolina woman makes paper from the vine which she uses in colorful collages. Another Georgia woman heads a company that markets jelly and syrup made from Kudzu blossoms. And a North Carolina man and wife bind 1,000 bales of Kudzu—high in nutritive value—to feed to their cattle each year.
But there are even more fascinating uses for the vine. 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 helps alcoholic rodents control their drinking problems.
The drug is based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese herbal medicine, but 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.
Back here in the U.S., it is said that Kudzu grows better in the South than it does in its native lands perhaps because its natural insect enemies were not brought to the U.S. with the plant.
Whatever the reason, visitors to the South are often awe-struck by the scenic vistas which reveal miles and miles of seemingly endless vines. While most residents abhor the invasive growth, they remain respectful of the plant.
Some admit they still close their windows at night to keep the Kudzu out.
Editor's Note: Richard L. Barnes is a Canon-McMillan Patch reader and Lawrence resident.