It’s no secret that I’m from “the South”. I put that in quotation marks because south, being a cardinal direction, should be a relative term. In the United States, it’s not. Arizona is in the southern half of the contiguous states. It is not part of “the South”. The Mason-Dixon line (named for two surveyors who marked the boundary in our colonial period) is much farther north than most people realize. While “south of the Mason-Dixon” is a phrase generally meant to encompass “the South”, the line itself was created to officially separate Maryland and Pennsylvania. For those unfamiliar with the geography of the U.S., Maryland and Pennsylvania are…not “south”.
The South is more of a nickname for an area of the country that is vaguely Southeastern. Exactly which states get included is sometimes up for debate, unless talking about “the Deep South”. As for me? I’m from the Deep South. What most people from other parts of the country might refer to as “Paddle faster, I hear banjos.” Mississippi. Hollywood would have you believe that we’re all backwoods racist rednecks. That is just not…entirely true. Okay, yes there are jerkwads who need to reexamine their worldview, but there are also good people who are learning to be actively anti-racist. Diversity booms here, in peoples, cultures, languages, animal and plant life. It’s not perfect–far from it–but my oh my, can it beautiful.
It can be especially beautiful in its landscapes. Wide rivers, deceptive in their lazy appearances that hide the power underneath. Hills of trees, still mostly unburdened with signs of human habitation. Farmland. Urban oases. Waterfalls, flat lands, historical trails ugly in their subject matter but beautiful in their preservation. The South is a landscape photographer’s dream. Of course, nothing is more iconic to the southern landscape than kudzu.
Kudzu, aka “the vine that ate the South”. Much like most of the people who claim the south as their ancestral home, kudzu is not native to the Americas. But it has become so intertwined with the idea of all that is southern that it is part of our very identity.
And yet, most people–Southerners included–don’t know as much about it as they think. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know about Kudzu.
- It was first introduced to the Americas during the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. The creeping vine is actually native to Japan. I have no idea how the word is actually supposed to be pronounced in Japanese, because I highly doubt that the way I learned to say it has any roots–no pun intended–in the actual Japanese pronunciation. For the record, in the South, kudzu rhymes with Mud Zoo.
- Even after it’s late 19th century introduction, kudzu didn’t immediately spread in growth or popularity. It was more of a novel garden vine. It wasn’t until the 1930s when a severe drought turned soil erosion into front page news thanks to the Dust Bowl that kudzu made a name for itself. Because of its self-reproducing nature (it grows stolons, often called runners, that have nodes used to form new roots), it was thought to be an excellent tool in the battle against soil erosion. The government offered up to $10 per acre to anyone who would grow it. And since this also coincided with the Great Depression, $10 was a king’s ransom to many starving families who were land rich but money poor.
- By the 1950s, the government dropped any offer it made to subsidize kudzu plantings and growth. It was everywhere in the South. Along roadsides that were becoming more and more visible as cars became more and more available and affordable, it grew in open fields, it grew over abandoned or ill-cared for structures likes homes and barns, even cars. It covered everything.
- Alice Walker, famed author of The Color Purple, once compared kudzu to racism. “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 reason kudzu fell out of favor went beyond the fact that it propagated so easily that it covered everything anyway, it also had other drawbacks. It’s not a good companion plant to anything, and to a still largely agricultural economy, a vine that takes over fields of crops if not contained is an absolute money pit.
- What those mid century farmers didn’t know, was kudzu has had a number of profitable uses for centuries. It can be used to make teas, soups, soaps, lotions, and natural medicines (it is said that kudzu tea is great for a headache). It is also sometimes used as a sort of stew thickener when food supplies run scarce because it has a decent amount of nutrition. These days it is often used as animal feed and has even been researched as a biofuel. I still say if you can figure out a way to make paper or cardboard out of it, we could make a significant dent in deforestation worldwide.
- It didn’t really “eat the South”. It looks that way when driving down our highways. It covers trees, hills, fields, you name it. And it kills whatever it grows on top of because, as I mentioned, it’s not a good companion plant. For those who are not up on gardening or farming, a companion plant is a good friend for another type of plant to have. They can share the soil nutrients and even help each other grow. Kudzu helps nothing else grow. It’s selfish that way. And while kudzu thrives in the hot, humid, sunshine soaked conditions of the South, it’s one great weakness is that it needs almost constant sun to survive. Put it in the shade and it withers. So it looks like it covers everything, and it kind of does, but as soon as you get past the sunny areas along roadsides and at the edges of fields, it dies away quickly, letting the natural vegetation grow.
- Even so, since a lot of other plants need that same sunshine to thrive, kudzu is in the top 10 of “invasive species” in the United States. It’s classified as a “noxious weed”. When you have the right conditions for it to grow, you have to pull it up by the root and make sure you get ALL of it, or it will come back. Fairly quickly. It’s what makes it a good food source for grazing animals (that and the high amount of protein in it). Herbicides and fungicides work, but again, if you don’t kill the entire plant, it comes back. It can be pretty difficult to eradicate.
- Another reason it is so often loathed by Southerners is the animals that so enjoy taking refuge underneath the overlapping vines. Mainly snakes. Kudzu loves the sun, snakes like to hide from the sun during the hottest parts of the day. They make a good team. Unfortunately, that means wherever you see large amounts of kudzu, you’re also more likely to find the slithering serpents. Sometimes entire nests of them.
- It’s a flowering vine. The flowers are purple and smell like grapes that are a little too ripe. When bees feed on the nectar from these purple kudzu flowers the honey they make from it is also naturally purple. And tastes a bit like grape jelly or sometimes bubblegum.
There you have it. Our biggest foe could easily be one of our greatest assets if only we figured out how to properly harness it. In the end, though, whether you love it or hate it kudzu is synonymous with the South. It hides old secrets, chokes out anything that tries to compete for its home and habitat, it can be dangerous, but also beautiful. No wonder Southerners hate kudzu. We might just be too much alike for our own good.