Saturday, September 4, 2010

Kudzu - the vine that ate the South

I'm house/pet sitting for some friends for three weeks. They live on a beautifully wooded hillside that I'm itching to landscape but in the untended areas in their neighborhood, we have this -

I took this photo while walking Emmie (who you can see at the end of this post). This field is right next door to their house and extends down to the river. Unless you live in the south, you might not recognize Kudzu (Pueraria lobata), or as many people call it "the vine that ate the south".

I was reading a rather serious, scientific website and was amused when I came across this statement about caring for it: "Mulch with cinder blocks, fertilize with Agent Orange, and prune daily." hehe

Of course, no one in their right mind would be growing kudzu in their garden (or anywhere near their property) but, believe it or not, people once did. The plant is native to China and Japan and its appearance in this country came about in 1876 when it was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and promoted as a garden ornamental! It took off, literally, and hasn't stopped since, swallowing over 7 million acres across the southeast. Apparently, the southern climate is ideal for kudzu and it grows better here than it does in its native country. It can easily grow one foot per day and over 100 feet in a year.

Kudzu's overly aggressive nature is damaging and destructive. It will quickly overtake trees, power lines and anything in its path. Scientists continue to study ways to eradicate it. A few years ago the city of Chattanooga started using goats to eat the stuff. I could not find an update on this so I'm not sure if this preventive measure worked. Goats and cows do love to eat it and it was first marketed as a food source for livestock.

Kudzu did have a lot of help in getting established in this country. During the Depression, the Soil Conservation Department promoted kudzu as a means of controlling erosion. The Civilian Conservation Corps put hundreds of men to work planting it and farmers were paid to plant fields of it. Smart!

It didn't take too long for the country to change its tune and in 1953, the U.S. government stopped recommending it and in 1972, it was classified as an invasive weed. This came much to the chagrin of one Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, kudzu's most vocal advocate. Cope started the erosion control hoopla when we wrote glowing articles on kudzu for the Atlanta Constitution and promoted it on his own radio broadcast. In Cope's defense, kudzu does prevent erosion, but using it is kind of like setting your garden on fire to get rid of the weeds.

Kudzu can also be used for making baskets, soaps, candles, paper, etc. It is said to have medicinal qualities as well and is rumored to ease hangovers and help cure alcoholism and high blood pressure.

It is also a food source. Kudzu Tea can be made from either the leaves or the roots. Kudzu jelly is another goodie. - jelly The roots contain starch and it is used in many Asian dishes.

One nice thing about kudzu is the fragrance which smells just like grape soda. So, since we have the stuff, we might as well do something with it. I don't think many people around here use it that much though.

So, if you are driving through the south and see those creepy fields of vines, you'll know what it is.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

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