The South is again under siege. This time by a plant, Kudzu (Pueraria montana). The genus name, pronounced pure area , is appropriate for Kudzu that forms a monoculture along roadsides and drapes forest edges across the South.
A few Southerners have learned to live with it. A farmer in Rutherford County, North Carolina, bails it and has dedicated his farm, Kudzu Acres, and grows only Kudzu. Nancy Basket, from Union County, South Carolina, has woven it into bowls and baskets. Festivals and cookbooks have Kudzu as their themes.
A tourist upon returning to Indiana called the University of South Carolina Upstate Herbarium asking for instructions on how to transplant this vicious vine. I could hear a chorus of Southerners echoing my words, "You don't want it!"
I have heard several stories as to the origins of this pest. Some have extolled it as an erosion control plant, others, as fodder, and still others have expounded on its horticultural beauty.
Winberry and Jones in their definitive work on the history of Kudzu list a number of common names for this Southern thatch including: porch vine, wonder vine. miracle vine, mile a minute vine, foot a night vine, or even the vine.
Kudzu is native to China and Japan. The Chinese use the root for flour (ko-fen). Medical uses include treatments for influenza, fever, dysentery and even snake bites. The Japanese use the vine as a stabilizer for steep slopes, as cattle fodder and fiber for cloth. The starch from the roots is used to make noodles.
Kudzu was first introduced into the United States in 1876 and grown at the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (Winberry and Jones). During the early years 1876-1910, porch vine was used as an ornamental. Although prized for its foliage, the vine produces deep purple Wisteria-like clusters of flowers in late July and August which smell like Grape Neehi soft drink.
In 1902 the United States Department of Agriculture reintroduced the plant from Japan as a fodder-producing vine in waste places (as quoted by Winberry and Jones). The first commercial planting was in Florida in 1910.
Between 1910 and 1935 Kudzu was used to stabilize soil and to increase the nutrient availability of damaged soils. The Southern Piedmont Conservation Experiment Station at Watkinsville, Georgia produced 73 million seedlings between 1935 and 1941.
Kudzu reached its popularity peak in the 1930s after being introduced into all Southern states. But, it was still planted and extolled as the "wonder vine" well into the 1950s.
By the mid 1950s it had been taken off the USDA's acceptable cover crop list and the eradication phase began. The control has been made harder since few new-world pests will eat it. Japanese beetles find it somewhat palatable. The soy bean looper caterpillars is being studied by David Orr at the Savannah River Weapons Plant as a potential natural defoliant. The vine has been found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far west as Washington state. It's considered a pest, however, only in the Southeast.
There is some solace in all of this. Pharmacologists have identified several isoflavones from Kudzu root (daidzin, daidzein, formononetin, biochanin A, and genistein). These compounds have been found to be reversible inhibitors of enzymes that break down alcohol and its by-products. Studies have shown Kudzu extracts to significantly inhibit alcohol consumption in hamsters. Maybe one southern scourge will help to eradicate the effects of another.
References and interesting Kudzu readings:
- Kovacik, Charles F. & John J Winberry, 1987. South Carolina, The Making of a Landscape. South Carolina Press, Columbia, S.C.
- Winberry, John J. & David M. Jones. Rise and Decline of the "Miracle vine": Kudzu in the Southern Landscape. Southern Geographer XIII:2, 61-70.
- Lawrence Review of Natural Products, June 1994. Kudzu. Published by Facts and Comparisons, 111 West Port Plaza, Suite 400, St. Louis, Mo. 63146-3098.