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KUDZU FOREVER

August 26, 2017

Clare and I received an invitation to an engagement party. When I called for directions to the home where the party was to be held, the host said, “We live three houses this side of the kudzu.” The truth is, in the South, we all live pretty close to the kudzu. As summer continues, kudzu, apparently unaffected by heat, stretches its sinister tendrils across the Southern landscape.

The television documentary, “The Amazing Story of Kudzu,” was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Television as a part of the weekly series, “The Alabama Experience.” It was then distributed to other Public TV stations nationwide. The documentary tells the tale of the kudzu vine and the relationship Southerners have with the insidious green invader.

At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1876, exhibitors from around the world were invited to celebrate the 100th birthday of the United States. The Japanese government constructed a beautiful garden filled with plants from their country. The large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms of kudzu captured the attention of American gardeners. Among them was a nurseryman from Chipley, Florida. He took a cutting, propagated the plant, and sold it to mail order customers as an ornamental vine.  A historical marker near Chipley proudly proclaims “Kudzu Developed Here.”

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu for erosion control. The Civilian Conservation Corps gave thousands of the unemployed jobs planting kudzu throughout the South. In the 1940s farmers were paid as much as eight dollars an acre as an incentive to plant fields of the vines.

Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, kudzu’s most vocal advocate, proclaimed, “Cotton is no longer king of the South. The new king is the miracle vine kudzu.” Cope wrote about kudzu in articles for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and talked about its virtues on his daily radio program.

The problem is that kudzu grows too well! The climate of the South is perfect for the prolific plant. Kudzu can grow as much as a foot per day during the hottest summer months, climbing trees, powers poles, and anything else in its path. The invasive vines can grow up to sixty feet each year. Kudzu can also destroy valuable forests since it prevents trees from getting sunlight. The Forestry Service in Alabama has researched methods for killing kudzu. They have found that many herbicides have little effect. One actually makes kudzu grow faster. Even the most effective herbicides take as long as ten years to kill kudzu.

I see places in our county that are identified as Kudzu Control Sites. Kudzu control seems like an oxymoron, to be sure. I appreciate the efforts of my friend Newt Hardy and others doing the work. They have actually had success in eliminating the voracious vine in selected areas. But kudzu is a stubborn foe. Newt explains that the persistent vine grows from crowns. Think strawberry plants on steroids. In order to kill kudzu, the crown has to be destroyed.

The Cherokees believe that a weed is a plant for which a use has yet to be discovered. When it comes to kudzu, Southerners are still eagerly searching for a use. Researchers at Tuskegee University successfully raised Angora goats grazing in fields of kudzu. The goats keep the kudzu from spreading further while producing milk and wool products.

Basket makers have found that kudzu vines are excellent for decorative and functional creations. Ruth Duncan of Greenville, Alabama, makes over 200 kudzu baskets each year. She is called the Queen of Kudzu. Regina Hines of Ball Ground, Georgia, has developed unique basket styles which incorporate curled kudzu vines. She weaves with other vines as well, but she says that kudzu is the most versatile. Nancy Basket of Walhalla, South Carolina, not only makes baskets but also makes paper from kudzu.

Diane Hoots of Dahlonega, Georgia, has developed a company to market her kudzu products, which include kudzu blossom jelly.

Henry Edwards of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, cuts and bales the vines producing over 1,000 bales of kudzu hay each year on his Kudzu Cow Farm. The hay is high in nutritive value. Henry’s wife, Edith, makes deep-fried kudzu leaves, kudzu quiche, and other kudzu dishes. Yum!

The quest for a suitable use for the green monster has made it to the Ivy League. Research with laboratory animals at Harvard Medical School has revealed that a drug based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese herbal medicine extracted from kudzu root may help in the treatment of alcoholism.

I have my doubts. When I was at Furman University, one dark night, a fraternity brother under the influence stop by the roadside to relieve himself. He fell into a tangle of kudzu and grappled with the cussed vine for fifteen minutes before he freed himself. He was no less drunk when he finally escaped than he was when he went into the fray.

Ask any Southerners about the vine, and we’ll have something to say or a story to tell. Love it or hate it, we can’t escape it. James Dickey once said, “Southerners close their windows at night just to keep the kudzu out.” Visitors to the South are awestruck by scenic vistas revealing miles of endless vines.

When Clare and I were at the coast several years ago, I visited a local garden shop. While there a couple from Canada came in to browse. After a few moments the woman asked the proprietor, “What is that plant that covers so much of the countryside? We noticed the interesting shapes that it makes along the highway.”

The garden shop owner looked at me with a question on his face.

I thought for a moment and asked, “Can you describe the plant?”

The man offered a description. “It is a beautiful lush green plant that takes many unusual forms as if it were shaped as topiary designs are.”

“That’s kudzu,” I said. I knew exactly what he meant.

“I have heard of kudzu,” he said. “Will it grow in Canada?”

An older gentleman standing nearby offered, “I can tell you how to plant it.”

“How’s that?” the tourist asked.

“Cut a piece about the size of a pencil. Throw it as far as you can in one direction, and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction,” the old man said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Then y’all will have kudzu like we do – forever!”

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