Tuesday, July 11, 2017


On US 220 as one heads into Franklin County, the highway is lined with kudzu. We don't see much of it here where I live; perhaps we're just a little too far north and not exactly the right climate. But two counties away, there it is.

Kudzu covering the side of the road, moving up into the trees, as far as one can see from a car.

Kudzu has always fascinated me. When I was growing up, I heard tales of how it was going to take over everything. It would grow overnight around a vehicle and encompass it, eating it like a giant anaconda engorging a cow. It was poisonous, or so I thought.

It was going to take over the world.

In Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake book, and the two that follow, a newly created humanoid, one Crake thought up to take the place of us reckless, angry, thoughtless, immoral and degraded human beings, sits and stares at the landscape, dreamily contemplating apparently nothing at all. These creatures, innocent and unthinking, ate kudzu because it was so plentiful that Crake thought it would be an endless food source for them.

It looks like it would eat everything, doesn't it?

Kudzu, named an invasive species by Congress in 1998, found its way to the United States via the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Farmers had little use for the climbing, coiling, and trailing perennial vines native to much of eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and some Pacific islands. (The name is derived from the Japanese name for the plants, kuzu, which was written "kudzu" in historical romanizations.)

Kudzu was hard to harvest, being a vine, and sustained animal grazing killed it. For almost 60 years, it was largely forgotten.

Then along came the dust bowl of 1935, which left the prairie farms lifeless. Congress in its infinite wisdom decided it should do something about soil erosion, and somebody decided kudzu was the perfect foil. Greenhouses grew more than 70 million kudzu seedlings, and they were taken over by a new government entity, the Soil Conservation Service. In order to get it planted, the SCS offered $8 an acre to farmers to plant the vine.

While farmers remained skeptical, contractors, eager for something to cover the sides of the new roads they were carving into mountains and slopes, planted kudzu seedlings everywhere they went. In 1940, there was even a Kudzu Club of America, which had a membership of 20,000 and a goal of planting eight million acres of kudzu across the South.

However, just five years later, only about 1 million acres had been covered with the "crop." Once federal payments stopped, it was grazed over or plowed under. The government left kudzu to do what it would.

Kudzu climbing toward the sky via the trees.

It grew, and legends grew along with it. Today it does not cover millions of acres, but because it does grow well along roadsides, it is highly visible. It has become a symbol of the South, and part of the mythology of an area that other parts of the nation see as run-down, poor, and overtaken by grief and a nostalgia for a past that never really existed.

Kudzu became a symbol of the hopelessness of a land scarred by a Civil War that even now is still fought, with a battle raging just this weekend in Charlottesville as KKK and anti-racist protestors argued over whether a statue of Robert E. Lee belongs in the city park.

In Smithsonian Magazine, I found this paragraph in an article about kudzu:

In a 1973 article about Mississippi, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote that “racism is like that local creeping kudzu vine that swallows whole forests and abandoned houses; if you don’t keep pulling up the roots it will grow back faster than you can destroy it.” The photographs of kudzu-smothered cars and houses that show up repeatedly in documentaries of Southern life evoke intractable poverty and defeat.

It seems a truth, this notion and thought, this statement about a vine that supposedly eats the land. As I stand back and watch the changing mindscape of humanity, I have to wonder - are we becoming not Atwood's kudzu-eating innocents, but the mythology of the kudzu itself, a vine-like snake that eats everything in sight, and which will eventually kill itself when it turns around and eats its own tail.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/true-story-kudzu-vine-ate-south-180956325/#8HfbETilyKTcpkVJ.99


  1. Interesting. I never knew it was planted on purpose... thought it was just grew wild.

  2. I love driving through Boones Mill and looking at the kudzu—it's like ever-changing sculpture. Oddly, it doesn't grow deep in the woods—only at the edge of them—because it needs sunlight. I've heard it was originally used as a "porch plant" to give privacy to the folks using the porch. A good article about it is here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/true-story-kudzu-vine-ate-south-180956325/
    My fear is that, if the piplelne ever goes through, someone will think it would be great to cover the damage quickly with fast-growing vegetation, and kudzu will fill the bill.

    1. Oops, didn't mean to repeat the URL that you'd already given.

  3. Thanks for this very informative post, Anita. A few years ago we did see kudzu and it indeed looked like it could take over any area as your photos showed. I did some reading about it at the time, but didn't realize that it had ben intentionally planted.


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