Tales of Tuscaloosa: The Vine that Saved the South Featured

A rusty tin roof is all that remains visible as kudzu engulfs a dilapidated barn near Tuscaloosa. The tall object in the center is a completely covered utility pole. A rusty tin roof is all that remains visible as kudzu engulfs a dilapidated barn near Tuscaloosa. The tall object in the center is a completely covered utility pole. Jim Ezell

It was a momentous day in May of 1876 in Philadelphia. President Ulysses S. Grant, accompanied by Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, officially opened the Centennial International Exhibition, the first world’s fair held in the United States. Millions of Americans would come to view industrial and agricultural products, new inventions such as the telephone and typewriter, and cultural exhibits from around the world. 

Japan’s pavilion was of particular interest, since it introduced fair goers to many plants never seen before in the West. Included among them was a green leafy vine known in Japanese as “kuzu (), or as it was translated into English, kudzu. This plant fascinated some American gardeners who added it to their home landscaping. Kudzu was touted for its edibility, use in traditional Asian medicine, and erosion prevention properties. 

Scientifically known as Pueraria lobata, kudzu is a member of the pea family and is native to southern Japan and southeast China. It primarily reproduces through runners that root to form new plants. Under favorable conditions, well established plants can grow half an inch per hour or about a foot a day. Individual vines can reach 100 feet in length in a single growing season. 

It was discovered that kudzu was excellent high protein forage for grazing animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep. Commercial nurseries began strongly promoting its use, and during the Great Depression, the United States Department of Agriculture even subsidized farmers to plant it for erosion control. To some, it became known as “the vine that saved the South.”

However, the warm moist climate and survivable winters of the South presented ideal growing conditions. The initial advantages of kudzu were offset by aggressive climbing and extreme growth. It began to cover everything in its path including shrubs, trees, buildings, and even utility poles and wires. In fact, anything remaining stationary for several days was engulfed. It had become an invasive species that killed other vegetation by heavy shading. Eventually, kudzu would cover as much as 7-million acres, or about 11,000 square miles of the South—an area larger than Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined.

Attempts at kudzu control have met with limited success. Some measures have included grazing by goats and llamas, prescribed burning, weekly mowing, subsurface crown removal, herbicides, and fungi application. Additionally, areas where these methods were tried needed as much as 10 years of monitoring and follow up treatment to ensure total eradication. A recently introduced Asian insect, the kudzu bug (Megacopta cribraria), appears to reduce growth. However, this small insect has itself become an invasive pest, since it also has an appetite for other legumes such as soybeans, and it can have a major impact on crop yields.

Kudzu has become part of the folklore of the South and is often the source of witty comments. One joke poses the question,How do you plant kudzu?” The answer is,Throw it over your shoulder and run!” Another quip is that Southerners keep their windows closed at night to keep kudzu out of their homes. 

In spite of eradication efforts, it is likely kudzu will remain part of the American scene for the foreseeable future and will continue to produce phantasmagorical landscapes that pique the imagination of children and adults.

Suggested additional viewing: 

The Amazing Story of Kudzu, Max Shores, producer, University of Alabama Center for Public Television & Radio (1996). 

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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