Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Kudzu

When I give my friends from 'up north' a talking tour of south Alabama (which is a blend of history, myth and imagination), we inevitably come up on a ravine covered with kudzu. The question usually runs like this: "What is that beautiful green foliage?" Thus begins a long discourse on soil erosion, nitrogen-producing nodules and the story of how kudzu won the South.

No roadside plant is more common in the South than the pervasive kudzu vine. For many years it was systematically planted as a forage and a combination soil-saving and soil-building plant. During the Depression years, kudzu was planted free of charge by the CCC boys. I don't know when it happened, but one day we woke up to the fact that we were no longer in control of the kudzu. It had covered and made inaccessible the soil it had enriched and saved. Not many are old enough to remember when there was no kudzu, but fewer still know how it got started in the country.

Around the turn of the century a couple from Chipley, Florida, by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Pleas, attended the World's Fair in Chicago. Among the other prizes they brought home was a cutting of kudzu which they begged from a horticulture expert from Japan.

The great dreams of the value of the vine for ornamental purposes, livestock feed, soil-saving, and enriching were eventually overshadowed by the fact that it grew quickly out of control and became a menace to the usefulness of the fields in which it was planted. In the 1950's farmers were desperately fighting what they had hopefully planted in the ‘30s. After more than a half-century kudzu has covered the South.

One of my friends sent this alleged conversation about kudzu. Two men were talking about kudzu and one asked the best way to plant it. The other answered, "First you cut a small piece from existing growth, then you throw it on the ground and run as fast as you can."

Another friend wrote that when he read the column he kept expecting me to draw a parallel between the plant and the ‘kudzu' in our lives. There are things we do which seem like a good idea at the time, but these things have the ability to take over and become destructive, covering the emotional landscape of our lives. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself entangled by something which, when you started it, seemed like a good idea - maybe even a fun thing to do? You can make your own list. I see people every day who are crippled by something that seemed to be such a good idea when they started it. I have my own kudzu list. Do you have yours? Be careful about anything that seems like a wonderful idea. It could be kudzu.

Every few years someone proclaims that they have at last found a practical use for kudzu. They have suggested using the leaves of the luxuriant vine for tea, compost, and a dozen other things. Recently, I heard that someone has suggested it be used in high blood-pressure treatment. Who knows?

The only place in the world (of which I know) that claims kudzu is the lovely little town of Chipley in northwest Florida, which has a marker on the edge of town which proclaims: "Kudzu Was Developed Here".

Some day we may be able to express more genuine thanks to Chipley (and the Pleas) for their gift to the South. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked, "What is a weed?", and then answered his own question saying, "A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered". James R. Lowell said: "A weed is no more than a flower in disguise".

We all have the feeling that kudzu has something important to offer us (there is so much of it). Perhaps some modern George Washington Carver will do for kudzu what was done for the peanut.

The world is waiting!