MERIDIAN — We live in the Deep South – more specifically, we live in God’s Country. That’s right – East Central Mississippi, and, of course, we have KUDZU! I must confess – when I began this column, I thought it would be a fun little take-off about the green stuff, the kudzu, you know, but as I researched, I could quickly see there is more depth (no pun intended) to the (Pueraria lobata) -- sometimes called ge’gen (Chinese.) Yes, the green leafy plant that is categorized in the pea family is a climbing, coiling, and trailing vine native to southern Japan and southeast China.
I know -- how did it make its home so nicely in Mississippi? History reported at the time of the U.S. centennial that was celebrated in 1876, there was an open invitation extended to foreign countries to build exhibits that featured unusual plants. It was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Uh-huh, and Japan featured kudzu. Now it must have been a real novelty to see the elaborate Japanese gardens on display. Oh, how the lovely dark green leaves swooped and swirled – in and out, up and down, around and around. It was so charming – made the Americans want to plant their own lovely kudzu enhanced gardens, and that’s how it all started.
By 1905, Americans, as enterprising as ever, sought new uses for the fast growing perennial vine. It was quickly learned the plant could be used to prevent erosion, and as forage for cows, pigs, and goats. Some one thought of planting the stuff along highways. It was the 1930s when the Soil Conservation Service paid hundreds of men to plant kudzu, and in the 1940s, farmers were paid up to $8 an acre as well to plant the green stuff. It didn’t take too long for the U.S. to stop their promotion of the out of control vine. By 1972, kudzu was declared a weed by the USDA. However, the plant sometimes known as “the-foot-a-night-vine” and “the vine that ate the south” was out of control. Unfortunately, Mississippi as well as the entire southeast had near-perfect conditions for the prolific growth of the vine – hot, humid summers, frequent rainfall, temperate winters with few hard freezes and no natural predators. Today, it is estimated, kudzu covers 7 million acres of land in the southeast. It’s hard to believe, but some estimate the plant is spreading at a rate of 120,000 acres a year. In Mississippi, it covers almost 250,000 acres (some estimates are higher), and kudzu causes millions of dollars of damage each year for the Magnolia State – especially in the forestry industry.
What to do? Years have been spent developing a cost-effective remedy for managing kudzu. One complication is the fact of the deep root growth – as deep as 4 meters. Herbicides work but must be repeated over and over for upwards to 4 to 10 years in order to be effective. Aerial spraying has found to be the most effective, but the most expensive as well. Also used to eradicate the weed are prescribed burnings and the use of landscape equipment such as skid loaders.
Could goats be the answer? In recent years, Mississippians have seen growth in the goat industry – yields of meat, milk and wool products. Yes, we know goats will eat anything green – kudzu has proven to be a high-quality, high-protein food similar to alfalfa. So, kudzu-plus-goats have brought a growing market for this non-traditional meat, but we can’t rely on the goats to eradicate kudzu from our land.
Other ideas – basket making material, kudzu paper can be produced, soaps, lotions, compost, kudzu hay, clothing or wallpaper, food products such as salad, jelly, syrup, tea, fried kudzu, ground kudzu root, kudzu boiled like turnip greens, baked as a quiche, and so many other recipes that sound yummy, sort of. It has even been suggested that kudzu may become a valuable asset for the production of cellulosic ethanol. WOW!
Perhaps the most interesting kudzu fact -- for 2000 years China has used kudzu as medicine. A few areas -- remedy for alcoholism and hangovers, treatment for dysentery, allergies, migraine headaches, diarrhea, fevers, colds, intestinal problems, and other ailments. The first Chinese medical kudzu documentation is dated 100 AD. Today the main focus for kudzu medical research worldwide is for the treatment of alcoholism. Scientists have successfully concluded through experiments with hamsters and rats that a compound in kudzu shows a repression of alcohol consumption.
Kudzu has continued its slithery pathway into countries around the world. It has been discovered in Canada near Lake Erie as recently as July 2009. During WWII, kudzu was planted by the U.S. armed forces at Vanuatu and Fiji to camouflage their equipment – it is now out of control there as well. The creeping plant has found to be a problem in northeastern Australia and Northern Italy.
Every situation or fact of life should have a chuckle – a little humor. James Dickey says in his poem “Kudzu”
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.
And who has not enjoyed the daily comic strip created by Doug Marlette entitled Kudzu? It was known as a funny take-off about rural Southerners – hey, that’s us! At its peak, Kudzu was syndicated in three hundred newspapers. CBS aired a pilot for a Kudzu sitcom on August 13, 1983. A musical based on the comic strip was staged in Washington D. C. in 1998. Mr. Marlette was killed in an auto accident on July 10, 2007, and America lost a popular comic strip.
Well, there you have it – a short version of the “Kudzu Story.” There is so much more to know about the little “miracle vine” that has been given the name “Kudzula” in at least one theatrical production – maybe a later column will reveal some exciting “Kudzu Breaking News!” Perhaps this is just a “Kudzu Dream,” but if the green stuff develops a proven food, fuel, or medicinal usage, could Mississippi one day be known as the “Kudzu Capital of the World?”
Anne B. McKee is an author and storyteller. She lives in Meridian. Anne is listed on the Mississippi Artist Roster, sponsored by Mississippi Arts Commission, as a dramatic and literary artist and as a Teaching Artist. She is active with the arts and educational communities throughout Mississippi. Visit her web site: www.annemckee.net