Southerners were paid to plant kudzu

Published 11:45 pm Friday, June 23, 2017

What vine zigzags across Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi and even spreads as far north as Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Connecticut, and as far west as Texas and Central Oklahoma?

It climbs trees, edges into tops of neighboring trees, covers abandoned buildings and turns ill-kept junk yards into a mass of greenery. It even edges its way up wires that support telephone poles. It has some artistic attributes, too, if you care to use your imagination. It makes scary shapes in the twilight and eerier ones when car headlights flash on it in the darkness.

If you are a native of any of the above-mentioned states, you know of what I speak. Some call it a telephone vine. Others a porch vine. Still others a wonder vine. Other names for it include mile-a-minute vine, foot-a-night vine, and the vine that ate the South. Almost everyone who is familiar with it calls it a nuisance. My daddy, who fought a losing battle with it for years on the back part of his property, had names for it that he would not want me to repeat. Of course, I am speaking of kudzu, that wonder of a vine that can grow as much as a foot in a day and sixty feet in a season. Too, its roots can be as deep as 12 feet and weigh hundreds of pounds.

Back in 1992, one of Auburn University’s Alabama Extension Service bulletins reported it could be eradicated, but it would take from three to 10 years to accomplish it. A few years ago, Dr. James H. Miller of the U.S. Forest Service in Auburn, who researched methods for killing kudzu for eighteen years, found that one herbicide makes kudzu grow better while many have little effect. He recommended repeated herbicide treatments for at least four years, but like the researcher of the 1992 report, he found that some kudzu plants might take as long as ten years to kill, even with the most effective herbicides.

I thought it might be a native plant to Alabama until a neighbor enlightened me. He told me his daddy brought it to Andalusia and elaborated on how fast it spread. I did not take him seriously, but later realized there might have been truth to his story. I learned that kudzu was introduced to the United States in 1876 by the Japanese who used it in constructing garden exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In the 1930s during the Depression, the Soil Erosion Service offered millions of kudzu seedlings to southern landowners to revitalize the land and reduce erosion. As an incentive, they paid those people $8 an acre to plant their land in kudzu so by the mid 1940s, three million acres were swamped with kudzu.

At the rate kudzu grows and resists eradication methods, I think it is safe to assume that the three million figure has more than tripled by now. Doubt it? Watch closely as you travel southern highways and byways.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business.