Kudzu: The Vine that Ate the South

Wow this miracle plant grows 3 feet a day! Where can I get one? An article from The Ocala banner (Ocala, Fla.), 1909

It is hard to imagine driving down a highway in the south and not seeing swaths of kudzu carpeting eroded gullies and forests. Although one would think it a permanent feature of the southern landscape, the kudzu vine was not introduced in the United States until the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Japan showcased the kudzu plant in an elaborate garden exhibit in which it was promoted as an aromatic ornamental.

Let me call you sweetheart under the old kudzu vine, an article in the Fair Play (St. Genevieve, MO), 1919

Kudzu appears in numerous articles after 1876 recommended as a shade vine to grow on arbors and porches. By 1901, sophisticated city gardeners were contemplating adding kudzu to their gardens in places like Washington, D.C. An advertisement was found in The suburban gardener (Washington, D.C.).

Cows and Horses Can't Get Enough of It: an article in The Pensacola journal (Pensacola, Fla.), circa 1908.

Kudzu really seems to take off in the early 20th century when it became a favorite legume recommended to farmers as cattle fodder and as a nitrogen-rich crop cover for depleted land. Farmers marveled at its rapid growth which was seen as its biggest virtue.

Wheel Deep in June! An article in the Fair Play (St. Genevieve, MO), 1919

This circa 1919 article states that “this remarkable vine is destined to become one of the leading sources of wealth in certain sections of the U.S.”  Despite dim forebodings in this article when one man concluded “so rapid was its growth” it was a complete nuisance as an ornamental shade cover, he instead discovered kudzu to be highly desirable edible fodder for his livestock. This same kudzu enthusiast pined in another article in The Ocala Evening Star, that passing numerous eroded and washed out lands while riding through the south,  he “could see in [his] mind’s eye, kudzu climbing over those hilly, rocky places” and hoped that one day kudzu would cover all of them.

Kudzu’s popularity continued into the 1950s when it finally fell out of favor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, kudzu covers an estimated 7 million acres across the southern United States and is considered to be the most wide-spread invasive species costing hundreds of millions of dollars in eradication, control, and financial loss to crops and forests. Yet, even so, it has become inextricably identified with the southern landscape.

Try searching for more articles on your own. Go to Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers and search “kudzu.” You can also try variations in spelling such as cudzoo, or nicknames such as the “Jack in the Beanstalk vine.”

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