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March 25th, 2017

Insight

Bye-bye, kudzu, or: The South will rise again

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 31, 2016

It's hard to believe, but scientists report that kudzu -- the green monster that ate the South -- is in retreat all across these alternately sunny then rain-drenched latitudes. Which means that one bright morning Southerners may wake up and be able to see the South again. Instead of a landscape whose outlines have been blurred over by a carpet of green. What next -- the Sahara without sand, Siberia without snow, Brazil without jungle?

Even sweeter, the South may at last have its revenge -- for kudzu, like Lee, is said to be moving north. It's spreading to the Midwest and Oregon, even Canada. For on this beautiful blue planet, there is no empty quarter, no matter what the Saudis say about their sandy kingdom. Chased out of one locale, life will just pop up in another. But at least and at last, it seems to be in retreat from Memphis to Atlanta and all across Dixie.

Why? Many reasons. Like rapid if not rampant urban development, insecticides and the introduction of a kudzu-eating bug. But one green plague may soon enough be replaced by another. Like Japanese honeysuckle, which may pose a greater threat for the moment than kudzu did in the past. It's too early to proclaim victory in this war to save the ever fecund South from invasive species, but definite gains can be celebrated in the war on kudzu.

To quote Jim Miller, aka Dr. Kudzu because of the four decades he's spent studying and fighting the green monster: "It's in retreat. We can stop the spread of kudzu -- we can lick it -- and reclaim the land for other uses." And they said it couldn't be done. Our pine forests and backyard gardens should be safer, our horizon clearer if we can beat it. Who will have won the emerging victory? A grand if unlikely alliance of ecologists like Jim Miller, foresters out to save our prized Southern pines, farmers who just want to protect their croplands and, yes, goats. For they, along with sheep, eat kudzu. Congratulations to all.

And to think, kudzu was first introduced as a gesture of good will by the Japanese before the plant launched this sneak attack on the South. It happened in 1876, the bicentennial year of the American republic. The place? The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which included a traditional Japanese garden complete with flowering kudzu in full purplish bloom.

Southerners in particular took to kudzu -- believe it or not -- not just for ornamental purposes but as a cash crop. It was soon being touted as a replacement for cotton. For ranchers and farmers could use it as forage for their cattle. Everything was soon coming up kudzu. "Cotton isn't king in the South anymore," proclaimed the farm editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. "Kudzu is king!" Soon he was traveling across the South organizing Kudzu Clubs.

A couple in Chipley, Fla. -- Charles and Lillie Pleas -- were soon advertising kudzu as "a miracle vine" that would "help humankind." They distributed it by mail order back then, but today their venture merits only an historical marker to mark the spot kudzu was developed. An inauspicious monument indeed for this Frankenstein's monster of the plant world. For it was soon covering whole forests, overwhelming full-grown trees and keeping seedlings from sinking roots. By the 1950s, commercial foresters were putting the damage it wreaked at $500 million a year.

Kudzu is neither gone nor forgotten in these Southern parts. Indeed, it's become part of regional folklore. To quote Greg Levine, co-executive director of Trees Atlanta, on the subject of this mile-a-minute miracle: "I've never heard of it disappearing; it's still eating the South." To combat it, he's had to mobilize an army of everything from lawnmowers and herbicides to goats and sheep. "I've heard of it reaching further and further north as it gets warmer. You see it more in the mountains. It follows roads and power line corridors all the way up." If it isn't Public Enemy No. 1 throughout the South, it still has a prominent place on the Most Wanted list.


By now kudzu is officially classified as a weed, as in locoweed. It would be dangerous to turn your back on it, for it's the stuff of sci-fi horror stories. One long-ago summer, ecologist Jim Miller -- Dr. Kudzu himself -- remembers getting a couple of letters from farmers' widows about their now deceased husbands who had spent years keeping this green menace at bay. "They were having nightmares of kudzu climbing in through the windows and grabbing them as they slept. They were just really fearful. It was heartbreaking."

And yet there are those who understand kudzu's powerful grip on not just the Southern landscape but the Southern psyche -- like Dr. Kudzu. Or as Jim Miller confesses, "I like kudzu. I like to look at it. It's like an old friend." Or maybe like an old flame -- a dangerous, seductive old flame.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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