Kudzu is so much more than the “vine that ate the South.”
Few plants evoke the landscapes of the Deep South more powerfully than kudzu. A tangled mass of a weed, kudzu (Pueraria lobata), the “Vine That Ate the South,” effortlessly scales telephone poles, junkyards, and untended fields. According to one frequently cited estimate, kudzu covers 7.4 million acres in the United States. County-level maps created by University of Georgia scientists document kudzu’s voracious appetite: a keen driver will spy it hugging misty hillsides in Appalachia or creeping along flood plains in the Mississippi Delta. It thrives in Alabama piedmont, Louisiana bayous, the Carolina coastal plain, and the suburban sprawls of Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, and Birmingham.
Despite its fecundity, kudzu’s reach fades at the edges of South Florida, Texas, and the Midwest Rust Belt—preserving those regions for their own mythologies. With such tidy borders, the vine serves as a useful emblem for the particularities of Southern culture. Today, there are boutiques that sell kudzu jellies in Dahlonega, Georgia, a Kudzu Review at Florida State University, a Camp Kudzu, and at least 30 roads in the South with “kudzu” in their name. Originally a loan word from the Japanese “クズ” or “葛” (kuzu), the plant’s name has thoroughly naturalized in the Southern vocabulary, akin to bayou, or Cherokee, or the Gullah and Irish-Scot vernacular y’all. By 1979, Johnny Cash could sing about “them ol’ kudzu vines” that were “coverin’ the door.” After him, Florida Georgia Line would invoke the “honeysuckle lips” of their beloved “tangled up tighter than a kudzu vine.” Georgia’s own R.E.M. put kudzu on the cover of their 1983 album Murmur.
But kudzu is both a regional icon and a highly invasive species with few natural predators. It’s so pugnacious that by 1971 the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed kudzu among the “common weeds of the United States.” Kansas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania strictly prohibit kudzu seeds from being sold. State agencies spend millions of dollars on eradication efforts annually. Power companies, homeowners, and timber plantations find it a particular nuisance. James Miller, a specialist in kudzu, once estimated total productivity losses from kudzu are $500 million per year. For some, kudzu is a “green plague” or “alien invasion”—a “thug plant” that “pukes carbon” into the atmosphere. In 1999, Time magazine ranked the introduction of kudzu to the United States as one of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century, next to the Treaty of Versailles and cold nuclear fusion. In part because of its conspicuous growth along roads, kudzu remains an enduring poster child for a dubious folk tradition of invasion biology. Prevailing narratives focus on kudzu as a threat to biodiversity, a pollutant of the ozone layer, and a herald of climate change, even at the expense of confronting more subtle weeds.
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But this image also obscures larger, more direct causes of habitat loss in the Southeast, such as suburban sprawl and farming. In fact, far from a hapless Asian import, kudzu began as a centralized, large-scale intervention in the Southern landscape. Kudzu’s lineage traces a Pacific Rim exchange from Meiji-era Japan to the Deep South, from European acclimatizers in the Belle Époque to New Deal planners in the 1930s to talk radio preachers in the 1950s. As the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets slowly collapse into the ocean, the story of kudzu’s rise and fall in the 20th century serves as a cautionary tale for the climate-salvage projects of the 21st.
Kudzu also illustrates the fluidity with which people define their cultural relationship with exotic species. Today’s miracle vine is tomorrow’s weed. This thematic tension animates kudzu’s many metaphors in the South—apocalypse, racism, decay, love, determination, and faded glory. To entangle oneself in kudzu, then, is to entangle oneself in the South itself, and with the global forces that have created its landscapes, peoples, and myths.
Kudzu’s weedy image in the U.S. South contrasts starkly with the veneration it received historically in East Asia. In Japan, classical texts like the Kojiki (711 A.D.) and Nihon Shoki (720 A.D.) describe an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers called the Kuzu who lived along the Yoshino River. Their diet consisted of chestnuts, mushrooms, and trout, but they evidently traded the ground root of kudzu as a cooking starch and jelling agent. Some speculate that pilgrims to Mount Yoshino—a kind of Olympus in the early Shinto faith—christened the plant after this ancient people.
In any event, East Asian peoples cultivated kudzu for a long time. Shreds of cloth woven from kudzu fiber were recovered from a 6,000-year-old archaeological site in Mount Cao Xie in China. Confucius describes the cloth in The Analects as “light and cool to wear in summer.” Agricultural manuals in 17th century Korea advise rice farmers to plant kudzu as a hedge against famine. Japanese poetry, including the Man’yōshū (600 A.D.), celebrates the leaves as a wild vegetable. There are also texts in the canon of tradition Chinese medicine, such as Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng (250 A.D.) and Shānghán Lùn (200 A.D.), where the sages proscribe kudzu root as a remedy for colds and alcoholism.
Kudzu also illustrates the fluidity with which people define their cultural relationship with exotic species.
Kudzu continued to be widely used by East Asian societies into the early modern period, even after the introduction of Western medicine and novel starches such as potatoes and corn. Consider for example the Japanese agricultural innovator Ōkura Nagatsune (1768–circa 1860) who wrote a treatise on kudzu, beautifully illustrated by a pupil of the printer Hokusai (known for his iconic painting The Wave). According to scholar Yota Batsaki, the treatise celebrates kudzu as a “ ‘useful thing … in useless places,’ able to flourish in depleted soils and steep mountain sides.” The samurai weaved kudzu in the weft of their elegant garments.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1863, the samurai as a class were destroyed and aristocratic fashion shifted to Western styles. Still, kudzu prevailed. One Japanese business history tells of a partnership with a Los Angeles firm to provide Asian wallpapers made from kudzu to Jackie Kennedy, who liked the designs and had them installed in the White House. Folk weavers make baskets, fishing lines, and cloth out of the material, even though silk, hemp, cotton, and jute textiles—easier to scale commercially—eclipsed kudzu long ago. Kudzu tea and powders appear in Japanese cuisine like kaiseki-ryōri and shojin ryori. The renowned author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki could deploy this gustatory valence to excite the reader’s appetite for his erotic 1931 novella Yoshino Kuzu.
During the Belle Époque of 1876–1914, Europeans and Americans had little use for kudzu’s culinary or textile qualities, but they valued it as an exotic ornament for their gardens. As historian Kim Todd demonstrates in her book Tinkering With Eden, acclimatization societies in Paris, London, and New York at the time saw the purposeful introduction of foreign species as a righteous mission. Aristocrats opened their game parks for experiments. Hundreds of nonnative species were introduced to the Australian, American, and African colonies, with the aim to “improve their breed,” as Brit Frank Buckland wrote in 1880. To remind the nostalgic settler of the old country, to delight and wonder at the exotic, and to enrich the local flora and fauna of a region were objectives very much in the vogue for 19th century botanists.
Avid horticulturalist Thomas Hogg facilitated kudzu’s formal introduction to America on his frequent trans-Pacific journeys as U.S. consul and adviser to Japan from 1862–74. An appointee of Abraham Lincoln and a disciple of the larger acclimatization movement sweeping the U.S. during Reconstruction, he sent several kudzu specimens to his brother’s nursery business in New York City. Japanese envoys planted kudzu in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, on the 100-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. About 10 million people attended this Centennial Exposition in 1876. Kudzu showcased again at the 1884–85 World Cotton Centennial in New Orleans and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1900. Such venues were important not only to educate Americans about the world but to project U.S. power in the affairs of other nations, particularly nonwhite ones.
Until 1910, the vine percolated among gardener circles delighted by its ability to shade the arbors and verandas of the home. An advertisement in a 1909 issue of Good Housekeeping praised kudzu’s flowers: “a shade of purple and deliciously fragrant” that “flourishes where nothing else will grow” and “requires little or no care.” In this capacity, kudzu appears as a quiet porch shade in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But the seeds of kudzu’s explosive growth potential had already become apparent. In the early 1900s, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist David Fairchild scattered kudzu seeds in his D.C. backyard only to write in his memoirs, The World Was My Garden, that they “all took root with a vengeance,” smothering the bushes and pines in “an awful, tangled nuisance.”
Despite these warnings, kudzu reached its golden age in the U.S. not as a garden ornament but as a source for livestock fodder and aid in erosion control. As historian Derek Alderman carefully documents, kudzu’s status as a “miracle vine” was intimately tied to the radio charisma of the Atlanta-based Channing Cope, who touted kudzu’s marvelous abilities “to clothe the naked land” in a “garment of green.” Almost 90 years after the Dust Bowl, it’s difficult to express how deeply anxiety about the soil gripped the country. When the Russian Revolution and World War I dramatically increased wheat prices, decades of overgrazing and unsustainable plowing of the Great Plains’ virgin topsoil reaped their consequences. Drought struck. The rugged individualism of Little House on the Prairie gave way to what the Marxists call “a crisis of overproduction,” compounded by the Great Depression. Unanchored soils turned to dust. Not only for the millions of Okie migrants immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath but also for the Southern farmer, the barren, washed-out gullies were symptoms of a deeper social malaise. As Channing Cope suggested:
It isn’t just topsoil that is rushing along here under the bridge; it’s children’s shoes and clothes and school books; it’s the washing machine and the refrigerator that the family was planning to buy. … Erosion is not merely topsoil being moved off the land. It is school erosion, church erosion, and family erosion.
If peaches were touted as a cure for Georgia’s “sorry, washed-out anemic gullied hillsides” at the fin de siècle, than kudzu was seen as the panacea after the Great Depression. Kudzu showed a unique ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. It grew quickly on any ground, wonderfully resisted pests, and provided healthy fodder for livestock. Cope equated kudzu as a form of transcendence from cotton monoculture: “Cotton isn’t king here anymore. Kudzu is king.” With a preacher’s flair, Cope reminded his brethren in the 1949 book, Front Porch Farmer, that hundreds of thousands of acres awaited “the healing touch of the Miracle vine.” His allusions to nakedness, decay, demons, and miracles illustrate two insights articulated by scholars such as Derek Alderman. First, that farms and wastelands must be “created semiotically before they can be transformed materially.” Second, that such interventions require the charisma of individuals to “to translate claims based on scientific evidence into a popular discourse.”
A generation of Southern farmers and advocates were impressed. Already by 1907, kudzu hay was on exhibit in Jamestown, Virginia. In Chipley, Florida, a thrilled Mr. C. E. Pleas discovered his farm animals liked it. He grew 35 acres as fodder and sold root cuttings via the U.S. Postal Service throughout the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, the newly created Soil Conservation Service, or SCS, propagated kudzu at state nurseries to stabilize the deforested landscapes of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Several experiments by New Deal planners indicated that kudzu’s protein content matched alfalfa hay. Dairy cattle fed kudzu showed weight gain and increased milk production compared with a control group fed native grasses. The SCS paid farmers up to $8 per acre (a hefty sum at the time) to plant the vine. Extension agents recommended a crop rotation that included kudzu. Highway developers and railroads, desperate for a cheap, low-maintenance cover crop, turned to kudzu.
In total, SCS nurseries grew and distributed more than 73 million seedlings between 1935 and 1941, according to scholars John J. Winberry and David M. Jones. By around 1945, kudzu covered about 500,000 acres in the South. In Georgia, a Kudzu Club boasted 20,000 members and worked toward the goal of planting 8 million acres of the vine by 1950. Front Porch Farmer sold more than 80,000 copies. There were kudzu queens. Articles touting the virtues of kudzu in outlets such as the Atlanta Constitution, Reader’s Digest, Progressive Farmer, and Business Week. “Kudzu isn’t a vine, merely” wrote Channing Cope. “Kudzu is the Lord’s indulgent gift to Georgians.” Healthy fodder for cows and goats, nitrate fixer for the soil, a grape-scented shade for the veranda—what wasn’t to like about the South’s own jack in the beanstalk?
The kudzu craze proved ephemeral. By 1953, the USDA quietly removed kudzu from the list of acceptable cover crops. New growth declined, with farmers plowing much of the existing acreage over when the subsidies stopped. By the late 1950s, highway departments decided to no longer use kudzu in road bank stabilization except in areas where no other plant would grow. Railroads eradicated kudzu from right of ways. In the ’60s, the federal government’s only recorded experiments on kudzu involved its destruction. In 1962, the SCS limited its advice about planting kudzu to areas far removed from homes, fences, or orchards that could be overrun by the vine. In 1970, the USDA classified kudzu as a common weed. According to Winberry and Jones, kudzu’s aggregate farm acreage declined from 500,000 in 1950 to 85,000 in 1970.
What explains kudzu’s fall from grace? As a soil stabilizer, the vine performed a little too well. Without the insect controls and winter die-offs that kudzu encountered in Japan, the plant flourished in the Deep South. The vine’s resource allocation strategy gives it a competitive edge since the plant devotes little energy to structural support, achieves a high rate of net photosynthesis, and sports a diurnal leaf movement that maximizes exposure of the lower canopy leaves and reduces overheating at the crown. It doesn’t require pollinators to spread. In time, civil engineers discovered fescue, new lespedezas, and Bahia grass to be more manageable stabilizers. As hay, kudzu also proved difficult to bale. The leaves are nutritious, but the woody stems (over half kudzu’s weight) are not easily digestible and remain difficult to rake. Planting the crowns of kudzu is labor-intensive compared with planting grains, which can be seed-spread mechanically.
The story of kudzu can be read as a cautionary tale about the hubris of large-scale interventions into complex ecosystems.
These developments reflected the shifting demands of agrarian life. For the homestead, Depression-era farmer, kudzu had value. It thrived in poor soil and required little attention. With the advent of industrial fertilizer, sector consolidation, and the innovation of new, hardy varieties of hay such as coastal Bermuda and triticale, kudzu became obsolete. The history echoes kudzu’s Japanese history as a folkloric textile eclipsed by the silk, cotton, and jute industry. The miracle vine’s legacy reminds us that a weed is not defined by some intrinsic characteristic such as its foreign origins, aesthetic features, or virility. Rather, weed is our term for the now-useless plant, a shifting social construct defined by the historic circumstances.
Second, kudzu’s carefully planned, profit-driven introduction parallels the trans-Pacific voyage of other nonnative species that are now firmly rooted in the South. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s 2011 Forest Futures Project, Chinese tallow covers twice as many acres in Southeastern forests as kudzu. Planting tallow began as federally sponsored effort to prop up a failed seed oil industry along the Gulf Coast in the early 1900s. Authorities introduced melaleuca to drain the Everglades. The flammable cogon grass, a catalyst for wildfires, began as a packaging material and forage crop to herders. Our Southern gardens and pastures, then, are not oases of harmony but leaky vessels teeming with invasive species waiting to wreak havoc.
The story of kudzu can thus be read as a cautionary tale about the hubris of large-scale interventions into complex ecosystems. Public worry about soil health has faded in the face of a broader climate anxiety. Today, political leaders and philanthropists eye new plant saviors on which to bet the future of the planet. In 2012, the head of Planktos Inc., Russ George, dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean, hoping to trigger an algae bloom so big that enough carbon dioxide would be captured to sell as carbon credits. The Salk Institute and its donors are using CRISPR to engineer novel cork trees, which they hope can trap carbon dioxide in the wood’s suberin, a waxy, water-resistant molecule. (If you’ve ever tried fruitlessly to compost wine corks, you may understand the intuition.)
At the international level, China and the African Sahel states are planting vast monoculture forests of acacia and eucalyptus to hold back the Gobi and Sahara deserts. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is still deciding what to do about Trump’s pledge to the Trillion Trees Act. Doubts about the efficacy of such campaigns remain. The enthusiasm surrounding these interventions parallel the deus ex machina qualities of the kudzu craze 80 years ago. Will our climate interventions be more cautious, or will fighting one menace just create another?
The legend of kudzu overshadows the vine itself. Figures that kudzu covers 2 million, or even 7.4 million acres, are frequently regurgitated in news articles, blogs, museums, and encyclopedia sites, as well as on .edu and .gov domains. Dubious interpretations of kudzu’s role in ozone pollution are picked up in outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor, BBC, and the Los Angeles Times. As conservationist Bill Finch noted a few years ago, these claims rest on flimsy evidence—numbers “plucked from a small garden club publication” and “how-to books.” A careful survey by the U.S. Forest Service in 2011 estimated current kudzu in Southern forests to be 227,000 acres—less than .02 percent of Southern forests. By 2060, the Forest Futures Project forecasts, kudzu, if left unattended, would not even double its current coverage. So much for the vine growing a “mile a minute.” Japanese honeysuckle and Asian privet, for context, cover 10.3 million and 3.2 million acres, respectively.
Even in urban and suburban areas, Jim Miller estimated, kudzu only reaches 500,000 acres. Meanwhile, the kudzu bug, first identified near Atlanta’s international airport in 2009, has been slowly eating its way through the leafy biomass. The hyperbole surrounding the “Vine that Ate the South” thus distracts attention from more subtle pests, such as privet, cogon, tallow, bamboo, and English ivy. Calling kudzu the “root of all evil,” ironically or not, also projects blame away from real forces of climate change and biodiversity loss, such as carbon emissions and suburban sprawl.
Another reason kudzu endures so vividly in our imagination is the automobile, an axiomatic fixture for the young cities of the South since 1914. Viewed from the car, roadside habitats take on an enlarged significance. When kudzu vines drape the tree canopy, their vague silhouettes come resemble ghosts, deformed monsters, or waterfalls of jade and emerald. I remember those haunted daydreams flashing past the car windows of my childhood. It was a distinctive, Southern form of cloud gazing. The shapes lend easily themselves to fantasy and metaphor: “In Georgia,” wrote poet James Dickey in 1964, “the legend says/ That you must close your windows/ At night to keep it out of the house./ The glass is tinged with green, even so/ As the tendrils crawl over the fields.”
The obsession with kudzu also reveals the long shadow of the Southern Gothic. William Faulkner describes the Mason-Dixie in Absalom, Absalom! as “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.” Compared with the European variety, our Gothic is earthy. While Emily Brontë has her lovers pace anxiously through the gloomy manor of Wuthering Heights, Flannery O’Connor just drowns people in the river during their attempt at baptism. The allure of the grotesque, violent, derelict, racist, and unholy animates the stories of Deliverance, True Blood, Get Out, and The Walking Dead, where zombies eat through post-apocalyptic Georgia as surely as the kudzu vines that animate its set.
Kudzu’s link to decay and apocalypse is a curious cultural export. For the globe-trotting travel writer Paul Theroux, “Dystopia Dixie” provides a lurid set of props to compare the “hunger and squalor” of Mississippi with his poverty porn in India and Africa. “I found what I had been looking for,” he declares in his 2015 book Deep South. The destination? A grocery store where a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, was lynched for being Black in 1955. “The whole wreck of it [was] overgrown with dying plants and tangled vines.” The scene reminds him of Angkor Wat. In the 1996 novel Fight Club, kudzu has shed its Southern identity and reached Chicago. The ultramasculine Tyler asks his group of misfits to imagine a post-apocalyptic revel of physicality and lawlessness:
“Imagine,” Tyler said, “stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers … you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy.”
In the Southern Ontario Gothic tradition, Margaret Atwood makes use of kudzu to dystopian effect. Her 2009 novel The Year of the Flood imagines a religious sect called God’s Gardeners, who actively desire the end to humanity through the “Waterless Flood,” after which “the Kudzu and other vines will climb, and the Birds and Animals will nest in them.” The eschatology is both lush and disquieting.
So just as Japanese kudzu set roots in the South, so too has the Southern Gothic set roots globally—and not just in Canada. “There is a lot Moroccans can identify with in Southern literature,” admits Leïla Slimani, a French Moroccan author of the recent novel In the Country of Others, “from the relationship to nature—at once hostile and sensual—to racial tensions, even if they’re not the same as in the United States. I want to build my own Alabama.” Swedish photographer Helene Schmitz captured kudzu’s cinematic intensity on camera, intrigued by the way the poor man’s ivy “transforms the landscape into something resembling an apocalyptic film set.”
For others, Jim Crow and the patriarchy undermine any potential for kudzu to speak to Southern myths of faded glory or civilization lost. The South was never glorious. Rather, kudzu’s everlasting creep across the landscape invites a near-Sisyphean struggle against the social and institutional forces of prejudice. “In Mississippi (as in the rest of America) racism is like that local creeping kudzu vine that swallows whole forests and abandoned houses,” wrote Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, in 1973. “If you don’t keep pulling up the roots it will grow back faster than you can destroy it.” Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet laureate of Mississippi, opens her poem “The Kudzu Chronicles” with a nod to intrusive men: “Kudzu sallies into the gully/ like a man pulling up a chair to a table/ where a woman was happily dining alone.”
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But where kudzu signals loss, decay, and oppression, it can also signal the South’s hospitality, zest, and indomitable spirit. Fennelly in her poem remarks that her own capacity to set roots in Mississippi parallels kudzu, which “grows best so far from the land of its birth.” Boston ivy may decorate the hallowed halls of Harvard and Yale, but kudzu marks Southerners uniquely for its own.
Kudzu has a place in our love ballads, too. A keen eye will spot kudzu, not soybeans or cotton, as the lush bucolics for many scenes in the 2016 civil rights film Loving. The story chronicles the journey of one couple as plaintiffs to the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 case that struck down Southern bans on interracial marriage. In the love song “Pressing Flowers,” the folk duo Civil Wars invite us, in their lilting, stretched timbre, to “meet me on the back porch where ivy climbs/ Where they sat on the swing/ Soak up the colors of the midday sun/ while the ocean sings.” I too remember standing on the shores of a seemingly endless kudzu ocean, in the arms of a dearly beloved. We were, in the words of the Alabama Shakes in their song “Gemini,” “honeysuckle tangled up in kudzu vine.”
Ross Gay, a great poet of mirth, reminds us of the aromatic joys of honeysuckles, which only “the sad call a weed.” Is this also true of kudzu? Starches, baskets, herbal remedies, cloth—kudzu’s traditional uses in East Asia are often overlooked in the South. A number of artists, foragers, and educators, particularly in Asheville, North Carolina, are working to transmit that knowledge and redefine kudzu as one of nature’s many gifts. Exciting studies on the plant and its extracts investigate whether it can reduce alcoholism, heal alcohol damage in the liver, inhibit HIV-1 entry into cell lining, restore soil at chemical waste sites, and create biohybrid circuits for solar power.
Kudzu’s many lives, then, tell us as much about ourselves as they do about nature. Miracle vine, overgrown weed, romantic mistletoe, herbal remedy, invasive alien, old friend—kudzu is a mirror of our own predilections. For so many, kudzu represents the South’s decay, its knotted moral legacy, and torn landscape. It also represents the South’s virility, abundance, and distinctive flair—our pride for a gothic, fertile, rooted, cosmopolitan, decaying, fecund, entangled, and beloved land. We best take care of it.