Kudzu: the vine that didn’t eat the South

Published 12:20 pm Thursday, November 5, 2015

Kudzu (Pueraria montana) has been getting lots of press this fall. The September issue of “Smithsonian Magazine” had a feature article debunking the legend of “the vine that ate the south.” A few weeks later, the Washington Post recapped that article in a subsequent gardening column. Turns out the green monster isn’t really so fierce after all.

Kudzu was brought to the United States in 1876 as part of Japan’s exhibition of exotic garden plants, and American gardeners fell in love with the vine. It climbed nicely, had attractive foliage, and best of all, purple flowers with the most amazing scent of grape soda that saturated the air on hot, humid summer evenings. Before long, everyone’s grandma had an exotic kudzu vine growing on a trellis at the end of her front porch.

During the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers to plant kudzu for erosion control. By the 1940s, farmers could earn as much as $8 per acre for planting seedlings. Kudzu was also championed by Channing Cope, an influential gentleman farmer, columnist for the “Atlanta Constitution,” and radio personality who thought that kudzu was a miracle plant that could save failing southern farms. About a million acres of land were eventually planted in kudzu, and for a while there were kudzu clubs and queens. Farmers soon learned, however, that kudzu couldn’t withstand sustained grazing, was actually difficult to get established and impossible to harvest. About the only place it grew very aggressively was along railroad tracks and highways. Even there, it didn’t grow so quickly that it would swallow small children or invade houses at night while everyone was asleep.

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Recent studies by the U.S. Forestry Service further debunk well-established kudzu legends. Kudzu currently claims only about 227,000 acres of forestland or an area about 1/6 the size of Atlanta. While that’s still a lot of territory, it’s not nearly as much as that covered by invasive roses or Asian privet. What’s more, kudzu is only spreading at a rate of 2,500 acres per year, and there is a new interloper, the Japanese kudzu bug (Megacopta cribraria), that’s eating its way through acres of vines from Atlanta to Virginia. Unfortunately, this bug also eats soybeans and invades homes during cold weather.

I must confess that I’m conflicted about kudzu. I grew up with vivid memories of it covering everything in its path along Rt. 360 between Green Bay and Meherrin. Kudzu vines just seemed so deliriously gloomy and romantic. Those vines are still there, draping trees, houses and who knows what else! And then there was my grandmother’s front porch. She had a kudzu vine growing up a trellis at one end of the porch, just behind the swing. On a hot, sultry summer evening, we kids would laze about in that swing and just be totally overwhelmed by the grape soda aroma of the kudzu flowers. During the day, we added kudzu flowers to our mud pies, used the leaves to “cook” fanciful dishes for our dolls, and fantasized about being swallowed up by those lovely green vines. What would we have done without it. Kudzu: there’s still a place in my heart for this alien species.

CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.