As a young naturalist growing up in the Deep South, I feared kudzu. I’d walk an extra mile to avoid patches of it and the writhing knots of snakes that everyone said were breeding within. Though fascinated by the grape-scented flowers and the purple honey produced by visiting bees, I trembled at the monstrous green forms climbing telephone poles and trees on the edges of our roads and towns.
Introduced from Asia in the late 19th century as a garden novelty, but not widely planted until the 1930s, kudzu is now America’s most infamous weed. In a few decades, a conspicuously Japanese name has come to sound like something straight from the mouth of the South, a natural complement to inscrutable words like Yazoo, gumbo and bayou.
Like most Southern children, I accepted, almost as a matter of faith, that kudzu grew a mile a minute and that its spread was unstoppable. I had no reason to doubt declarations that kudzu covered millions of acres, or that its rampant growth could consume a large American city each year. I believed, as many still do, that kudzu had eaten much of the South and would soon sink its teeth into the rest of the nation.
I’m not sure when I first began to doubt. Perhaps it was while I watched horses and cows mowing fields of kudzu down to brown stubs. As a botanist and horticulturist, I couldn’t help but wonder why people thought kudzu was a unique threat when so many other vines grow just as fast in the warm, wet climate of the South. I found it odd that kudzu had become a global symbol for the dangers of invasive species, yet somehow rarely posed a serious threat to the rich Southern landscapes I was trying to protect as a conservationist.
Now that scientists at last are attaching real numbers to the threat of kudzu, it’s becoming clear that most of what people think about kudzu is wrong. Its growth is not “sinister,” as Willie Morris, the influential editor of Harper’s Magazine, described in his many stories and memoirs about life in Yazoo City, Mississippi. The more I investigate, the more I recognize that kudzu’s place in the popular imagination reveals as much about the power of American mythmaking, and the distorted way we see the natural world, as it does about the vine’s threat to the countryside.
Kudzu might have forever remained an obscure front porch ornament had it not been given a boost by one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns in U.S. history.
In the decades that followed kudzu’s formal introduction at the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, farmers found little use for a vine that could take years to establish, was nearly impossible to harvest and couldn’t tolerate sustained grazing by horses or cattle. But in 1935, as dust storms damaged the prairies, Congress declared war on soil erosion and enlisted kudzu as a primary weapon. More than 70 million kudzu seedlings were grown in nurseries by the newly created Soil Conservation Service. To overcome the lingering suspicions of farmers, the service offered as much as $8 per acre to anyone willing to plant the vine.
Many historians believe it was the persuasive power of a popular radio host and Atlanta Constitution columnist named Channing Cope that finally got those seedlings in the ground. Cope wasn’t just an advocate. He was, as cultural geographer Derek Alderman suggests, an evangelist. Cope spoke of kudzu in religious terms: Kudzu, he proclaimed on his Depression-era broadcasts, would make barren Southern farms “live again.” There were hundreds of thousands of acres in the South “waiting for the healing touch of the miracle vine.”
Railroad and highway developers, desperate for something to cover the steep and unstable gashes they were carving into the land, planted the seedlings far and wide. There were kudzu queens and regionwide kudzu planting contests. By the early 1940s, Cope had started the Kudzu Club of America, with a membership of 20,000 and a goal of planting eight million acres across the South.
By 1945, only a little more than a million acres had been planted, and much of it was quickly grazed out or plowed under after federal payments stopped. Farmers still couldn’t find a way to make money from the crop. By the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service was quietly back-pedaling on its big kudzu push.
But the myth of kudzu had been firmly rooted. Those roadside plantings—isolated from grazing, impractical to manage, their shoots shimmying up the trunks of second-growth trees—looked like monsters. The miraculous vine that might have saved the South had become, in the eyes of many, a notorious vine bound to consume it.
Though William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and others in that first great generation of Southern writers largely ignored kudzu, its metaphorical attraction became irresistible by the early 1960s. In the often-cited poem “Kudzu,” Georgia novelist James Dickey teases Southerners with their own tall tales, invoking an outrageous kudzu-smothered world where families close the windows at night to keep the invader out, where the writhing vines and their snakes are indistinguishable. “I thought the whole world would someday be covered by it, that it would grow as fast as Jack’s beanstalk, and that every person on earth would have to live forever knee-deep in its leaves,” Morris wrote in Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood.
For the generations of writers who followed, many no longer intimately connected to the land, kudzu served as a shorthand for describing the Southern landscape and experience, a ready way of identifying the place, the writer, the effort as genuinely Southern. A writer for Deep South Magazine recently gushed that kudzu is “the ultimate icon for the South...an amazing metaphor for just about every issue you can imagine within Southern Studies.” One blogger, surveying the kudzu-littered literature of the modern South, dryly commented that all you have to do to become a Southern novelist is “throw in a few references to sweet tea and kudzu.”
For many, the vivid depictions of kudzu had simply become the defining imagery of the landscape, just as palms might represent Florida or cactus Arizona. But for others, kudzu was a vine with a story to tell, symbolic of a strange hopelessness that had crept across the landscape, a lush and intemperate tangle the South would never escape. In a 1973 article about Mississippi, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote that “racism is like that local creeping kudzu vine that swallows whole forests and abandoned houses; if you don’t keep pulling up the roots it will grow back faster than you can destroy it.” The photographs of kudzu-smothered cars and houses that show up repeatedly in documentaries of Southern life evoke intractable poverty and defeat.
Confronted by these bleak images, some Southerners began to wear their kudzu proudly, evidence of their invincible spirit. Some discovered a kind of perverse pleasure in its rank growth, as it promised to engulf the abandoned farms, houses and junkyards people couldn’t bear to look at anymore. Now there’s a cottage industry of kudzu-branded literary reviews and literary festivals, memoirs, cartoon strips and events. Kudzu: A Southern Musical toured the country. An endless procession of “kudzu” cafés, coffeehouses, bakeries, bars and even seafood and sake houses are distributed across the South, many of them easily found on the Atlanta-based Kudzu.com search engine.
The myth of kudzu has indeed swallowed the South, but the actual vine’s grip is far more tenuous.
In news media and scientific accounts and on some government websites, kudzu is typically said to cover seven million to nine million acres across the United States. But scientists reassessing kudzu’s spread have found that it’s nothing like that. In the latest careful sampling, the U.S. Forest Service reports that kudzu occupies, to some degree, about 227,000 acres of forestland, an area about the size of a small county and about one-sixth the size of Atlanta. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of the South’s 200 million acres of forest. By way of comparison, the same report estimates that Asian privet had invaded some 3.2 million acres—14 times kudzu’s territory. Invasive roses had covered more than three times as much forestland as kudzu.
And though many sources continue to repeat the unsupported claim that kudzu is spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres a year—an area larger than most major American cities—the Forest Service expects an increase of no more than 2,500 acres a year.
Even existing stands of kudzu now exude the odor of their own demise, an acrid sweetness reminiscent of grape bubble gum and stink bug. The Japanese kudzu bug, first found in a garden near Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport six years ago, apparently hitched a plane ride and is now infesting vines throughout the South, sucking the plants’ vital juices. In places where it was once relatively easy to get a photograph of kudzu, the bug-infested vines are so crippled they can’t keep up with the other roadside weeds. A study of one site showed a one-third reduction in kudzu biomass in less than two years.
So where did the more fantastic claims of kudzu’s spread come from? The widely cited nine-million-acre number appears to have been plucked from a small garden club publication, not exactly the kind of source you expect a federal agency or academic journal to rely on. Two popular how-to books, one a kudzu craft book and the other a “culinary and healing guide,” are, strangely, among the most frequently quoted sources on the extent of kudzu’s spread, even in scholarly accounts.
Yet the popular myth won a modicum of scientific respectability. In 1998, Congress officially listed kudzu under the Federal Noxious Weed Act. Today, it frequently appears on popular top-ten lists of invasive species. The official hype has also led to various other questionable claims—that kudzu could be a valuable source of biofuel and that it has contributed substantially to ozone pollution.
The hype didn’t come out of nowhere. Kudzu has appeared larger than life because it’s most aggressive when planted along road cuts and railroad embankments—habitats that became front and center in the age of the automobile. As trees grew in the cleared lands near roadsides, kudzu rose with them. It appeared not to stop because there were no grazers to eat it back. But, in fact, it rarely penetrates deeply into a forest; it climbs well only in sunny areas on the forest edge and suffers in shade.
Still, along Southern roads, the blankets of untouched kudzu create famous spectacles. Bored children traveling rural highways insist their parents wake them when they near the green kudzu monsters stalking the roadside. “If you based it on what you saw on the road, you’d say, dang, this is everywhere,” said Nancy Loewenstein, an invasive plants specialist with Auburn University. Though “not terribly worried” about the threat of kudzu, Loewenstein calls it “a good poster child” for the impact of invasive species precisely because it has been so visible to so many.
It was an invasive that grew best in the landscape modern Southerners were most familiar with—the roadsides framed in their car windows. It was conspicuous even at 65 miles per hour, reducing complex and indecipherable landscape details to one seemingly coherent mass. And because it looked as if it covered everything in sight, few people realized that the vine often fizzled out just behind that roadside screen of green.
And that, perhaps, is the real danger of kudzu. Our obsession with the vine hides the South. It veils more serious threats to the countryside, like suburban sprawl, or more destructive invasive plants such as the dense and aggressive cogon grass and the shrubby privet. More important, it obscures the beauty of the South’s original landscape, reducing its rich diversity to a simplistic metaphor.
Conservation biologists are taking a closer look at the natural riches of the Southeastern United States, and they describe it as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, in many ways on par with tropical forests. E.O. Wilson, the American biologist and naturalist at Harvard, says the central Gulf Coast states “harbor the most diversity of any part of eastern North America, and probably any part of North America.” Yet when it comes to environmental and conservation funding, the South remains a poor stepchild. It’s as if many have come to view the Southeast as little more than a kudzu desert. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that while vulnerable species are primarily in the Southeast, most lands protected as federal and state parks are in the West. Tennessee, Alabama and northern Georgia (often considered centers of the kudzu invasion) and the Florida Panhandle are among the areas that the authors argue should be prioritized.
In the end, kudzu may prove to be among the least appropriate symbols of the Southern landscape and the planet’s future. But its mythic rise and fall should alert us to the careless secondhand way we sometimes view the living world, and how much more we might see if we just looked a little deeper.