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Wednesday, 12 September 2012 13:10

Kudzu’s unstoppable march across the South

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mtn voicesFew people want to get close enough to observe the attractive flowers that kudzu produces. The plant probably won’t actually reach out and grab you — but then again, it might.

One of the many kudzu jokes that has emerged in the southeastern United States since its introduction goes, “If you’re going to plant kudzu, drop it and run.” There’s a certain logic in this piece of advice since the “mile-a-minute vine” grows as much as 12 inches in 24 hours and up to 50 feet in a single season.

Kudzu has become so much identified with the South that a full two-column entry is devoted to the plant in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (UNC Press, 1989). Long used as a medicinal plant in Asia, it was introduced into this country at the Philadelphia

Centennial Exposition of 1876, and then became known in the South through the Japanese pavilion at the New Orleans Exposition (1884-86).

First used as a shade plant on porches and arbors, it was subsequently utilized as livestock fodder and to help control erosion on bare banks or along railway right of ways.

Today it has become a danger to timberland as it envelops trees and eventually chokes them to death. Kudzu now covers more than two million acres of forestland in the South.

Eradicating the plant is a major undertaking that normally ends in failure. Southern poet James Dickey wrote a highly imaginative poem titled “Kudzu” in which telephone poles, snakes, and cows disappear in the stuff. To eliminate the snakes the farmers herd their hogs into the vines, where an epic battle takes place:

 

“The sound is intense …

Nearly human with purposive rage.

No one can see the desperate, futile

Striking under the leaf heads.

Now and then, the flash of a long

Living vine, a cold belly,

Leaps up, torn apart, then falls

Under the tussling surface.

You have won, and wait for frost,

When, at the merest touch

Of cold, the kudzu turns

Black, withers inward and dies,

Leaving a mass of brown strings …”

 

But, alas, you haven’t won. Come spring the deciduous vines will leaf out again and keep right on climbing and spreading … covering everything in sight … and there’s not much anyone can do about it.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .    

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