How a wonder vine unveiled by Japan at the 1876 Centennial began eating America.
The amazing wonders on display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia—the first world’s fair held in the United States—included Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, a Remington typewriter, Heinz ketchup and Hines root beer. But the exhibit that drew the most oohs and aahs was a garden in the Japanese pavilion where gawkers clamored to get a glimpse of a climbing vine that newspaper reporters claimed grew “a mile a minute”: kudzu.
One foot a day would have been more accurate. Even so, the speed with which kudzu scaled new terrain was astounding. The exotic perennial with pliant, fuzzy runners, broad leaves and small clusters of brilliant purple blossoms that emitted the sweet smell of grapes was also a beautiful sight to behold. And the Japanese promoted kudzu—“the wonder vine”—as a plant capable of taking root on land that couldn’t be cultivated for anything else.
No one realized that an invasive monster had just gained a foothold on American soil. Indeed, after its auspicious debut at the Centennial Exposition, kudzu soon came to be prized as both a pretty ornamental and a cheap forage crop in the South, where an abundance of sunlight and humidity helped it spread like wildfire. During the Depression, kudzu was enlisted in the fight against soil erosion and planted en masse with taxpayer funds. But over time a growing sense of wariness spread across the land as kudzu crept up telephone poles, entombed street signs, mummified abandoned automobiles, and created broad canopies in yards and gardens that blocked sunlight and obliterated other plants. By the 1950s, the miracle plant acquired new monikers, including the “cuss-you vine,” “the green scourge” and “the vine that ate the South.”
Kudzu has since been nipping at the North as well, reaching into Pennsylvania and New York and pushing west to Nebraska, Oklahoma, even Oregon, potentially blanketing more than 7 million acres of U.S. territory and wreaking significant economic damage— perhaps more than $50 million annually. At the dawn of the new millennium, Time magazine labeled the government-sponsored proliferation of kudzu across America as one of the worst ideas of the 20th century. And now evidence has emerged that kudzu may even be contributing to climate change. That’s the conclusion of scientists affiliated with The Earth Institute at Columbia University, who last year discovered strong signs that the vine is causing ozone formation in low levels of the atmosphere.
Kudzu is an ongoing natural disaster that defies containment. But it did not become the plant that’s eating America all by itself.
Charles and Lillie Pleas were like many homesteaders when they dropped kudzu around their house in Chipley, Fla., in the early 1900s, seeking low-cost relief from the hot summer sun. As an ad in Good Housekeeping put it, “This is the most remarkable hardy climbing vine of the age, and one that should be planted by every one desiring a dense shade. It flourishes where nothing else will grow, in the best or poorest soil, and owing to its hardy nature, requires little or no care.”
The Pleases were new to Florida, having arrived from Indiana with plans to start a timber reserve. They weren’t in the business of cash crop farming, per se, but maintained a small herd of animals. One day, Charles discovered his pigs and goats, even his chickens, noshing greedily on “the front porch vine,” as many called kudzu in those days. Had he just stumbled into a business opportunity?
Pleas began experimenting with kudzu as a forage crop. The vine proved tricky to harvest—Pleas had to invent a plow strong enough to yank its woody roots from the soil—yet the animals were ravenous for the roughage. In 1905, the couple opened Glen Arden Nursery, a mail-order business, and began touting kudzu as the “coming forage of the South,” with the help of nature-oriented organizations like the Audubon Society. Word of the venture quickly caught the attention of the U.S. Postal Service. Doubting that the Pleases’ claims of the plant’s rapid growth rate could be true, investigators launched a fraud investigation—and then closed the case upon laying eyes on the vine.
A bit further north, in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist named David Fairchild had less success when he tried cultivating kudzu from a batch of seeds imported from Japan. Fairchild discovered that kudzu is surprisingly resistant to reproduction through traditional seeding techniques. But he refused to give up. “Finding a nursery which offered seeds for sale, I grew a lot of seedlings and scattered them about rather fecklessly, having in mind the plant’s stubborn refusal to grow for me before,” he wrote of his home experiments, which subsequently spun out of control. “The seedlings all took root with a vengeance, grew over the bushes and climbed the pines, smothering them with masses of vegetation which bent them to the ground and became an awful, tangled nuisance.”
Farmers who experimented with kudzu in those early years found that once a few seedlings took root the vine would proliferate even on sandy and loamy soil and spread indiscriminately on unproductive land. And it was at least as appetizing to livestock as other nutrient-rich feeds, like alfalfa, that had to be trucked to the South. Kudzu also made a hay “of good texture” and was soon deemed a promising Southern crop by Fairchild’s colleagues at the Department of Agriculture. “It will graze more hogs per acre than any legume plant we have ever grown,” boasted one scientist. “It gives promise of being one of the leading sources of wealth in certain sections of the country in the near future,” said another.
In 1920, hoping to kick-start a hay trade that the railroad could haul, the Central Georgia Railroad bought thousands of kudzu plants from the Pleases to give to farmers to plant. But the program was slow to catch on because of the skepticism of farmers who found the woody, stubborn stems tough to bale and worried about the way the vine slithered back to life even after an unexpected winter frost.
Government scientists were undeterred, however. “There is no danger that kudzu will become a pest,” proclaimed one official bulletin. The real danger—a “dragon,” as the New York Times put it—was erosion. Decades of cotton production without crop rotation had destroyed nutrient balances in the country’s farmland. The ravaged, fragile topsoil of the Great Plains and South were blowing away, leaving a gaping Dust Bowl across the country’s southern and midsections by the early 1930s. America needed a vegetative magic bullet to seize its soil. On the orders of the newly created Soil Erosion Service (later renamed the Soil Conservation Service), dozens of non-native species, including kudzu, were subjected to tests.
Kudzu jumped to front-runner status. According to a study at a Georgia research station, the plant could stop 80 percent more water and 99 percent more soil from running off than cotton could. Kudzu, a nitrogen-fixing legume, also replenished depleted sources of nitrogen in the soil; it kept the ground cool and trapped so much dirt that eroded ditches could be rehabilitated, researchers found. Bolstered by the findings, the Soil Conservation Service launched a kudzu planting campaign across the South in 1935. The program put hundreds of unemployed men to work planting the “gully-mender” on public lands along railroad tracks and highways. To woo wary private landowners, the soil service offered compensation of up to $8 per planted acre—a pretty penny to turn down during the Depression. Within a decade, the amount of kudzu in cultivation went from 10,000 to 500,000 acres.
Hugh Hammond Bennett, head of the Soil Conservation Service, proclaimed, “What, short of a miracle, can you call this plant?”
In 1927, the preacher’s son, former seaman, straw-hat-sporting Channing Cope bought 700 tired acres of property south of Atlanta and dubbed it Yellow River Farm. The parcel had been vacant for seven years prior, and a county agriculture agent predicted Cope would “perish to death” before making a buck off it. But Cope had other plans. Cotton’s dead, he said. “Kudzu is king.”
Within a dozen years’ time, Cope had tamed some 200 acres with a novel livestock and crop-rotation strategy: front porch farming. “The farmer could actually farm from his front porch if he were equipped with a television outfit or a high-powered telescope and electric connections to his pasture gates,” Cope wrote. “We have overcome frustration, confusion, drudgery.” Kudzu was the lifeblood of his system. Livestock fed on it in summer and fall; come winter they moved to another pasture while the kudzu worked over the nutrients in the soil and replenished itself for the following grazing season.
In the meantime Cope brought his kudzu gospel to the masses. Every morning, he’d throw back a cup of coffee spiked with bourbon, then broadcast the Yellow River Farm radio program from his front porch. He supplemented the how-to show with a daily newspaper column in the Atlanta Constitution. Letters from farmers— more than 3,000 in one year alone— filled his mailbox with questions about revitalizing their land with kudzu.
In 1943, Cope inaugurated the Kudzu Club of America. Its members— some 20,000-strong—pledged to grow 8 million acres of the vine throughout the South. Kudzu festivals cropped up, where young men rose to “tell how [they were] raising hogs in gullies which are covered up in kudzu,” and young lookers like Martha Jane Stewart Wilson, of Hale County, Ala., got the “thrill” and “privilege of being the Queen of Kudzu.” Food companies, meanwhile, tried to market products like “kudzup.” Business Week called the plant “cash on the vine.” Time called Cope kudzu’s “chief cultist.”
All the while, the Department of Agriculture was trying to breed a hardier strain of kudzu that would spread more quickly in cooler climes.
In 1949, Cope published Front Porch Farmer, part memoir, part how-to manual, part contrarian call-to-arms. “Soil erosion is not merely topsoil being moved off the land. It is school erosion, church erosion, and family erosion. Everyone is affected,” he began. “There is nothing more important to the nation and to you and me than holding soil and water on lands where rain falls. All else is secondary.” Cope went on to describe people who accosted him on the street and expressed their alarm about the rapid spread of kudzu. “Our position is in some respects like that of the physician who discovers that his patient is suffering from a malignant fever, say malaria,” Cope said. “He does not prescribe warm baths and massage and manicures and hairdos and soft music. He fights fire with fire. In our work we are face to face with the task of holding, restoring, and putting to work a large part of our farm which has been washed away by carelessness and ignorance. Kudzu is our number one aid in this job. We would be idiotic to refuse its help.”
The book became a best-seller in Atlanta and was adopted as a textbook at a handful of Southern agriculture colleges. “An important book for the entire South,” proclaimed a reviewer in Cope’s rival newspaper, the Atlanta Journal. “Channing Cope is a prophet.” But objections soon surfaced. The sun-loving, rain-loving “wonder plant” was proving too high-maintenance for the majority of Southerners. Kudzu had no natural killers, no insects or pests, to keep it in check. And its root system— which could plunge seven feet into the ground, and weigh 400 or 500 pounds—was no match for mowers.
Railroad operators began reporting that kudzu had covered tracks, causing trains to slip and derail. Foresters said kudzu was decimating trees. Utility companies said the vine raced up their poles more quickly than their workers could cut it down, causing electrical shorts. Highway officials claimed kudzu could creep across pavement in areas with minimal traffic and cover road signs.
And those farmers whom the government had paid to root the plant? World War II had altered economic priorities, placing new emphasis on efficiencies and economies of scale. Farmers were moving their livestock production indoors and trying to reforest available pasture. The last thing anyone wanted in a forest was kudzu.
By the 1950s, legions were asking for help with eradication and begging for tax relief when property became useless, uttering, “It was like discovering Old Blue was a chicken killer.” The Kudzu Club of America disbanded and the Department of Agriculture stopped its planting program. In 1962, the agency cautioned landowners to plant the vine away from homes, fences, orchards— anything that could be swallowed. In 1970, the agency scientists officially declared kudzu a weed. As one government forester said, “Kudzu as far as we see it is of no value other than keeping things green.”
“Far Eastern vines / Run from the clay banks they are / Supposed to keep from eroding,” James Dickey, the Southern poet and author of the novel Deliverance, wrote about the plant. “Up telephone poles, / Which rear, half out of leafage / As though they would shriek, / Like things smothered by their own / Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.”
Channing Cope, that feisty cultist, let kudzu flourish on his property long after it was declared a weed and famously banned county officials from coming near his land with clippers. The kudzu arbors soon became popular spots for teenagers to congregate come dark. In 1962, as the story goes, Cope went out one evening to shoo off a crowd but made it just three feet from his front porch before a heart attack killed him. In 1976, Yellow River Farm’s new owner found that kudzu had devoured most of Cope’s 700 acres, along with his house and barns, too.
Since the 1970s, an Alabaman named Jim Miller has operated what could be described as the 911 line for kudzu victims. “Within my first six months of getting hired to do invasive plant management for the U.S. Forest Service, I got letters from two ladies whose deceased husbands had planted kudzu, and it was growing all around their houses,” recalls Miller, a Forest Service ecologist. “One of the women said, ‘I have these nightmares of these vines coming in at night and getting me.’” The tenor of the outreach—“help me, help me!”— has persisted for more than 30 years, adds Miller. These days, many of the cries for help come by e-mail.
Miller has spent the bulk of his career looking for a way to smother kudzu. He tried hand-digging, mowing, burning, grazing livestock—all to no avail. He traveled frequently to exchange war stories with other ecologists and agriculturalists. “I’d get up in a county meeting with a slide show and explain my work and these old guys would say, ‘We know how to control kudzu!’ Either it had something to do with diesel fuel, goats or hogs. Everybody thought they could just knock the leaves out and that would undo the plant,” says Miller. “But nothing eradicates it 100 percent.”
The plant has no native predators, as it does in Japan and China, where it originated. Mother Nature is no help either. While a very severe frost will crisp and discolor the leaves and vines, the root system has consistently proved too hardy a match for the cold. That leaves herbicides. Miller has experimented with dozens. He did find one—picloram, or “agent pink” as he calls it—that was “extremely effective” if applied with persistence, and he trained a few folks how to apply it. But the herbicide is highly water-soluble; it leeches into surface water used for irrigation and destroys crops.
Kudzu maintained its champions. One was W. Crawford Young, a former soil service employee whom filmmaker Marjorie Short found when she made the Oscar-nominated documentary Kudzu in 1976. “We were in a depression and it turned out to be the cheapest and most effective item that would grow fast enough to do the kind of job that was necessary,” Young recalled. “The volume and amount that was planted was so large that occasionally it interfered with other crop plants or other land uses. But this was not serious in my opinion.” In the same film, then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, of Georgia, one of the states most overgrown with kudzu, said, “Let it grow, let it grow.”
Meanwhile, some enterprising sorts found alternative uses for the vine. Southern artisans used it to make jewelry and baskets. Juanitta Baldwin, author of Kudzu Cuisine, and William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, who wrote The Book of Kudzu, found ways to use the leaves and roots in the kitchen. More recently, researchers affiliated with Harvard Medical School found that a kudzu extract helps curb binge drinking and may be useful in treating alcoholism.
But with kudzu proliferating in at least 32 states, northeast to Maine and northwest to Washington, most efforts hinge on wiping out the stealth creepers. In quarantined labs, Department of Agriculture scientists are exploring whether insect predators native to Asia can destroy kudzu without harming crops or livestock. And researchers affiliated with Auburn University in Alabama are continuing the trials with herbicides that Jim Miller launched so long ago.
“If I’d been around in the ’30s and read the Front Porch Farmer, and seen creeks dried up like deserts, I probably would have done the same thing people did in those days—plant kudzu,” says Miller. It made sense in that environmental context. “But unfortunately, they just put big BandAids on the land. And it’s up to us to find ways to take the Band-Aids off.”
Kristen Hinman is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.