Kudzu Devouring Building, near Greensboro, Alabama Kudzu, known popularly as the “vine that ate the South,” has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the American Southeast. Introduced in the late nineteenth century from Asia, it now covers more than a quarter million acres in Alabama and more than seven million acres in other southeastern states, swallowing up abandoned buildings and farms. Largely considered a nuisance today, kudzu has had a varied reputation and history in Alabama, even serving as the inspiration for festivals and pageants in the 1940s. Alabama’s climate and soil types are generally ideal for kudzu, and it is found throughout the state.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana) is a semi-woody, creeping or climbing perennial vine with large, lobed compound leaves with three leaflets. It is a member of the legume family, which includes peas, beans, and a number of other popular food and garden plants. There are 18 or so species of kudzu, all of which are native to Asia. Kudzu spreads rapidly; its vines, which sprout from large tubers that can weigh up to 300 pounds, grow up to a foot per day and may spread more than 50 feet during the growing season. The vines put down roots as they grow and begin to develop new tubers and thus can rapidly establish colonies. Kudzu produces clusters of purple flowers in summer and early fall and seed pods in late fall.
Kudzu Blossoms Kudzu has been a valued plant among Asian cultures for more than 2,000 years and has been used as a traditional medicine, for paper-making, and as a source of starch for making cakes. The name kudzu is a misspelling of the Japanese word for the plant, kuzu. Kudzu first came to the attention of American gardeners at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, at which nations from around the globe created gardens based on their native flora for the Exposition’s Plant Exhibition. The Japanese representatives used kudzu in their display, and visitors were attracted to its impressive foliage and attractive flowers. By the late nineteenth century, kudzu had become popular as an ornamental vine in southern gardens and was widely available through mail-order catalogues. Kudzu’s large leaves and rapid growth provided much-needed shade, and its lavender clusters of flowers gave off a pleasant smell. Additionally, by the turn of the twentieth century, kudzu was being promoted as a cheap and easy-to-grow forage for cattle and other livestock.
Kudzu began its real takeover of the southern landscape in the 1930s. In 1933, the U.S. Congress established the Soil Erosion Service (now the Natural Resource Conservation Service) in response to the increasing threat of topsoil loss during the Dust Bowl era. Throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, the Soil Erosion Service distributed more than 85 million kudzu seedlings to southern landowners as a way to control soil erosion, with the government offering monetary incentives to farmers who agreed to plant kudzu. The federal Civilian Conservation Corps planted additional kudzu seedlings in the South as well. By 1946, three million acres of southern farmland had been planted in kudzu. Kudzu’s popularity at that time is reflected in the many kudzu clubs and festivals that arose in the South. The Kudzu Club of America, founded in 1943 by Georgia native Channing Cope, boasted 20,000 members at its height.
Kudzu on Train Cars As kudzu began to spread unchecked and cover the landscape, however, it began to lose its appeal. In 1953, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) removed kudzu from its list of acceptable cover crops, and by 1962, the Soil Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Erosion Service) was planting it only in remote areas. In 1970, the USDA demoted kudzu to the status of a common weed, and in 1997, Congress voted to add kudzu to the Federal Noxious Weed rolls. The huge effort to plant kudzu across the South has now been replaced with a huge effort to eradicate it. With more than seven million acres estimated to be infested with the vine and given its rapid growth rate, this is a daunting task. In Alabama, one of the most heavily infested states, more than 250,000 acres are blanketed with kudzu. Auburn University researcher James H. Miller has been among those researching ways to eradicate the plant pest but so far has found only one type of herbicide that kills it. Repeated applications of herbicide are needed to kill the massive tuber and not just the green growth.
In 2003, a group of federal and state agencies, nonprofits, and industry associations, including the Alabama Forestry Commission, the Auburn University Cooperative Extension, and the Alabama Farmers Federation, joined together to form the Alabama Invasive Plant Council, which aims to develop and implement management and eradication programs for kudzu and other invasive plant species, such as multiflora roses and Chinese privet.
Artisan Andrew McCall Despite its negative effects on the Alabama landscape, kudzu has earned a grudging place in Alabama life and culture. Kudzu’s name graces a Web site, Kudzu.com, that rates local businesses, and the University of Alabama Libraries has named its federated search engine Kudzu. Additionally, Huntsville boasts a film company named Kudzu Productions. Kudzu itself has provided materials for regional crafters, who use its strong but supple vines to create baskets and other woven works. And the blossoms are used by Alabamians and other southerners to make jellies and jams. Award-winning University of Alabama filmmaker Max Shores has even created a documentary devoted to kudzu, The Amazing Story of Kudzu, which he produced for Alabama Public Television in 1996. Given its persistence in the Alabama landscape, Alabamians are likely to continue finding ways to make good use of the vine that ate the South.