There’s an insidious threat lurking on the edges of highways across the Southern United States. It’s always on the move, silent but swift, with an insatiable appetite for full-scale destruction. It mercilessly suffocates, strangles, and smothers anything unfortunate enough to fall into its path, and it travels, unchecked, in nearly every state south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Faced with such a ruthless and pervasive danger, what do the residents of the South do?
Well, we’ll just make some jelly out of it. Of course.
Kudzu is tough. It boasts six-foot-long tap roots, 400-pound root crowns, and up to thirty vines per crown, each of which can, when luxuriating in the balmy climate of the Southeast, grow up to a foot a day. Everything that falls into its path – bushes, trees, buildings, (and, according to a particularly gruesome ballad, an unfortunate man who made the mistake of passing while a kudzu shoot tried to cross the road) – is climbed, covered, or crushed as the vine clambers over and blankets everything within its reach. Today, kudzu has overtaken an estimated seven million acres of the South, and it’s still going strong.
One might wonder at Mother Nature’s support of such unchecked proliferation, though kudzu owes just as much to good publicity as it does to environmental factors. The vine has grown naturally in Asia for thousands of years, where it has been used as a homeopathic cure for everything from hangovers to dysentery, but it was not introduced to the United States until the 1876 Philadelphia Continental Exposition, where it was branded as an ornamental bush and an effortless and efficient shade producer. In the 1930’s and 40’s, the vine was rebranded, this time as a way for farmers to combat soil erosion. Southerners were paid eight dollars an acre to sow disappearing topsoil with the tenacious plant, an effort that resulted in the intentional cultivation of over one million acres of kudzu. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the gravity of their error was discovered.
Today, those faced with the proliferative enthusiasm of kudzu are quickly divided into two camps: those who choose to creatively coexist and those who commit to nothing less than total war. Hacking, mowing, burning, poisoning, even developing biological control mechanisms such as fungi, those who are engaged in the seemingly endless fight against kudzu employ all means at their disposal to try to eradicate the vine. The plant has no natural insect predators in the United States, is obstinately resistant to almost all pesticides, and can reproduce through rhizomes, runners, rooting vines and seeds. Research abounds on the topic of kudzu control, yet despite the untold millions of dollars poured into government and civilian attempts to discover the chink in kudzu’s armor, the only remedy to be consistently effective is delightfully simple. Scientifically speaking, it is eight goats per acre.On the other end of the spectrum, many Southerners have adopted kudzu as their own, a kind of tenacious mascot or rascally uncle. To these folks, kudzu represents an untapped and underappreciated source of food, medicine, artwork, building supplies and, according to some rather extreme enthusiasts, will be the way that the South will survive post-apocalyptic starvation. The vines are manipulated into lampshades, baskets, and ceiling tiles; broken down to make paper and cardstock; and baled, stacked and stuccoed over to make walls. Kudzu cookbooks abound, featuring recipes ranging from quiche to candy. The plant is even being considered as a candidate for alternate fuel and is in the preliminary stages of being used as a treatment for alcoholism.
Whether considered a panacea for all social and biological ills or simply an obdurate weed, kudzu, it would appear, is here to stay. The rolling verdant waves of the vine that blankets the shoulders of Southern highways have inspired the feisty to battle it, the innovative to bottle it, and the artistic to write it odes, guaranteeing kudzu’s place as an enduring icon of the South.