Kudzu: The vine that ate the south
The amazing story of kudzu
It's a way to pass the time on steamy, languid summer days: Taking pictures of the kudzu, demon vine, foot-a-day vine, the vine that ate the south. Seven million acres swallowed whole, taking in another hundred thousand every year.
Our game is guessing what's beneath the leaves. A house? A barn? A nest of snakes?
Usually nothing more. Abandoned shacks. Leftover shanties. Empty homes, or homes taken by the vines.
My brother wonders who it was that built the houses. Me? I wonder where they've gone.
Writer | Storyteller | Speaker
Kudzu on trees in Atlanta, Georgia.
The kudzu monster of Lumpkin
When I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Lumpkin, a village in southwestern Georgia, just a few minutes from Alabama, a town that still slumbered in the Great Depression even as the rest of the country celebrated the American Dream with new houses and ice-making refrigerators and color television, I would lie awake at night, my six-year-old ears peeled, my eyes wide open in terror, listening to the whispers and creaks of the ancient house, my mother having long since turned out the light to make me go to sleep, and no reading light available to me in that far corner of the earth.
They say you'd best lock your windows at night to keep the kudzu out.I had heard about "the vine that ate the south," which grows as much as a foot a day in the hot, humid southern climate. During those long, lonely nights, with every scratch that I heard, every snap, every rustle, I imagined that outside my window, scraping at the window frame, seeking a way inside, its tendrils slithering underneath the window sash, was the hairy green kudzu monster that ate the south.
But when the window opened, I peeked out over the edge of the sheet, which I had pulled up to my face, and saw that it wasn't the kudzu monster coming inside. It was my older brother, bravely fighting off the kudzu outside my window. It was only then that I could sleep, knowing that with my hero protecting me from the hairy green monster, the kudzu would never find its way inside that little house.
It was only when I was an adult that I learned my teen-age brother hadn't been outside fighting off the kudzu. He had been climbing inside, trying not to wake my parents after his nightly search through that little town looking for something to drink. Or smoke.
Writer | Storyteller | Speaker
What is kudzu?
Or, the birth of the kudzu monster
It was a good-will gesture in 1876, when delegations from thirty-seven nations showed off their cultures at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia celebrating our country's one hundredth birthday and our emergence as a world power. The Japanese built a koi pond and tea garden and filled it with plants from their native islands, including a wild pea vine, the root of which had been used by traditional oriental medicine for centuries as a treatment for cold, flu, diarrhea, neck stiffness, and perhaps most significant to the fairgoers, as a cure for hangovers. The Americans, enthralled by the vines' large leaves and sweet-smelling purple flowers that bloomed in late summer, took home sprigs to plant in their backyards.
They say that on a hot, languid summer day, when you hear a rustle, it's the kudzu growing.During the Great Depression, because the Japanese pea vine grew so rapidly in the hot, humid climate of the south, the Soil Conservation Service promoted it for erosion control on the Georgia red clay hillsides and at the depleted mines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No one foresaw that the vine known as kudzu would love the southern climate so much that it would grow as much as a foot a day in the hottest part of the summer, encroaching far beyond the roadsides, climbing nearby trees and choking out their light, smothering the pines in a cloak of darkness and death, until it covered entire forests and telephone poles and barns and houses, the only visible clue as to what lay underneath the blanket of kudzu being the green leafy roof shapes and chimney forms, like redneck topiaries.
Today more than seven million acres of the southeast lie beneath the kudzu vines, larger than the entire state of Maryland, earning kudzu the name "the vine that ate the South." They say that on a quiet day, when you hear a rustle, it's the kudzu growing; and you'd better lock your windows at night to keep it out.
Photo: Newberry County, South Carolina. CCC enrollees planting kudzu on C. C. Spoon's farm, Newberry County, South Carolina. 200,000 seedlings were planted by CCC enrollees in this county this year 1941. These seedlings were planted on 400 acres representing 100 different farms. Photo credit National Archives and Records Administration
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Kudzu air pollution
How kudzu puts the blue in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Did you know that kudzu makes the Blue Ridge Mountains bluer?
The flora of the mountains releases airborne isoprene, a chemical that scatters the light waves, enhancing the shorter wavelengths. Since blue wavelengths are the shortest, this causes a blue haze over the mountains, each ridge back appearing more blue than the ridge in front of it.
Kudzu releases isoprene and nitric oxide, which combines with nitrogen in the air to form surface ozone, an air pollutant that causes health problems in humans and can deter plant growth. Kudzu ozone (kudzone?) "leads to about a 50 percent increase in the number of days each year in which ozone levels exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency deems as unhealthy," said a University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences and biology, co-author of a study on kudzu's effect on ozone production.
So not only does it make the mountains blue. It also makes people feel blue.
Read more about kudzu
How do you kill kudzu?
Bringing death and destruction to the invasive species
Like me or any other good southerner, kudzu hates cold weather and grows best in warm climates; but although the green vegatation dies back in the winter, roots survive southern winters.
Those roots can grow deep (also like any good southerner). Because those roots invade six feet or more down into the soil, burning or cutting kudzu off at the ground won't kill it. You would have to remove the root ball, difficult work, especially in the summer heat; or cut it off continuously for several years. Some people have had success letting cattle or goats over-graze it repeatedly, removing all the vegetation, especially in the late summer and fall, when the leaves are sending nutrients to their winter storage for the winter.
When the kudzu vines have grown for years, their runners permeating nearby spaces across an acre or more, the root crowns bulging to two inches across or more, those roots become so deeply infested and so branched out that mowing or grazing probably won't kill the beast. That's when you'll need chemicals. Some people have had success with Round-Up or other herbicides-although at least one herbicide is said to make it grow better.
What's the best way to kill kudzu?
Killing kudzu with bean plantaspids
Is the solution worse than the problem?
If only kudzu had natural enemies, perhaps it wouldn't proliferate so rapidly. Right?
After over a hundred years with no natural enemies in North America, kudzu has finally found competition. The bean plastaspid, also known as the kudzu bug, showed up in 2009 and is spreading across Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Instead of eating only the leaves, the kudzu bugs sink their suckers into the stem of the plant, sucking the life out of its wilting veins.
And with no natural predators in North America, these new Asian invaders have spread from a single traveling bug to a four-state infestation in only two years, proliferating faster than Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Sounds great, right? Except for one problem. This invasive species of bug also eats soybeans. So here we are with a non-native species brought in from Asia, with no natural predators, spreading throughout the south.
Isn't this where we came in?
Below are links to a few sites with kudzu death information. (Note that these are links to sites that I found useful and want to share. They are not advertisements and neither I nor Squidoo earn income from your clicks.)
- UF Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
The University of Florida's site with information about kudzu and about known treatment options.
- Invasive Species Management from the MDC
Some results of kudzu control tests by the MDC
- Rooting Out Kudzu the Spartanburg Way
The "Kudzu Coalition" in Spartanburg, South Carolina, helps residents clear out kudzu without the use of chemicals.
What are some uses for kudzu?
When life hands you weeds, make kudzu soap or kudzu baskets
When the kudzu monster tries to bury all the world, some of the most obstinate people refuse to submit. These are the people move their cars before the kudzu can cover it, who pull it away from their houses, who rip it up by the roots.
Other than food, artists and craftspeople turn the slithering kudzu tendrils into baskets and the oil into soap.
Check out the wonderful kudzu crafts on Etsy, the world's handmade marketplace, and help us fight back against the kudzu monster, one pretzel at a time.
- Handmade on Etsy, a global handmade and vintage marketplace.
Check out the handmade kudzu items.
- Kudzu Kabin Designs
Nancy Basket's lovely lamp shades, cards, and of course baskets. And she's a storyteller, too!
Kudzu in traditional Chinese medicine
In the comments section (below), reader KT says:
"Christy. Thank you for all the details about Kudzu. It's the miracle for our health.
"I have been using the Kudzu powder since I was a toddler back in VN. The water there need to be boil before you can drink. So i was always dehydrated, this cause urinary infection. Then my mom just give me one glass of Kudzu root power then i would be cured. Anytime my kids had a fever, flu, diarhea, headache, etc... I just give them the same juice. This Kudzu powder is the miracle for anything you can name for your health. from headache, cholesterol,... to menopause...."
Isn't that interesting? I'm not a doctor, and no one reading this should take this as medical advice. That being said, people in the orient have used it this way for centuries, long before the advent of western pharmacology.
Following their example, my husband likes dietary supplements. Lots of them. Between his fish oil and Vitamin D and whatnot, and his prescription medications, it takes two daily pill organizers to hold his daily allotment.
So the other day he had a huge smile when he came home. "Guess what I found for you? It fits right in with what you have been writing." And out of his plastic drug store bag he pulled a bottle of kudzu tablets.
Visit Jack Anthony's website for more excellent kudzu photos.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have used kudzu for centuries in treatments for alcoholism and hangovers, making it especially ironic that an entrepreneur in East Tennessee is using kudzu to produce alcohol. Kudzunol.
Check out Agro*Gas's effort to use kudzu as a biofuel, replacing corn with a worthless weed, eliminating the competition with food sources that drives up commodity prices. Interesting!
In North Carolina, Kent Hardison nearly killed Jesus. Seeing the kudzu vines climbing a telephone pole near his hot dog stand, he set out to destroy the vine--but then he noticed that the vines looked remarkably like Jesus on the cross. "You just can't spray Jesus with Roundup," he thought.
And after you have enjoyed the photo of Kudzu Jesus, then go to UPI and learn that Kudzu Jesus isn't kudzu after all--it's trumpet vine.
Well ... maybe we can just pretend it's kudzu? Because a good story is a good story!
How do you grow kudzu?
You didn't expect information on how to grow this infamous southern pest, did you? Tifton B. Merritt is a southern writer with a wonderful sense of humor. His tongue-in-cheek guide on how to grow kudzu reveals such priceless suggestions as:
Kudzu should always be planted at night. If kudzu is planted during daylight hours, angry neighbors might see you and begin throwing rocks at you.
- How to Grow Kudzu
PDF document by Tifton B. Merritt
Monster or culture?
Noodle on this: Because Kudzu has only been in the south for a few generations, our ancestors never saw it. The first Europeans who settled on the coast, or who crossed the Smokies into the western lands, found no kudzu. The native Americans forced westward on the Trail of Tears passed by no kudzu. The builders of the antebellum plantations hacked away the forest to create tillable fields, but they didn't have any kduzu to fight. Kudzu threatens the Civil War battlement monument at Vicksburg, but there was no kudzu in Vicksburg at the time of the battle.
On the other hand, you and I have never seen a south without kudzu. As it has become an integral part of our southern landscape, I can't imagine never seeing a forest that is not covered in vines.
Would you miss kudzu if it were gone?
I'd love to hear your feedback.