Common Name: Kudzu, Kuzu (Japanese), Ge Gen (Chinese), Foot-a-Night-Vine, The-Vine-that-ate-the-South – The English common name is taken directly from the Japanese Kuzu which is the name of an ancient Japanese people and subsequent toponym for the town of Kuzu (now part of Sano) in the Tochigi Prefecture in northeast area of Honshu. It is likely that the Kuzu used Kudzu or that it was originally identified in the Kuzu region
Scientific Name: Pueraria montana var. lobata – The generic name derives from Marc Puerari, a 19th Century Swiss botanist who taught in Copenhagen, Denmark. The species name means mountain in Latin with the variation signifying that it has lobed leaves. It is also sometimes referred to as P. lobata or as P. montana.
Potpourri: Kudzu is the epitome of the invasive noxious weed; it out-competes native species to engender an ecology devoid of diversity, draping across the encumbered landscape of denuded tree boles like a leafy green kimono, a metaphor for its Asian origins. It is a woody, perennial vine that extends its tendrils of alternate lobed leaves with nearly visible celerity (up to a foot a day) to the tops of tree canopy and across the expanse of the sub-canopy – until it becomes both, a sea of leaves. Kudzu has earned the sobriquet “Vine-that-ate-the-South.” Estimates of its smothering ubiquity range from 2 to 5 million acres, about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire. Kudzu’s success as the world’s most accomplished invasive has a measure of irony; it was intentionally planted and promoted as an exotic ornamental, an agrarian fodder crop, and finally as a soil conservation ground cover during the first half of the 20th Century.
Kudzu’s debut in the New World was at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the first official World’s Fair in the United States which also introduced the now iconic brands Heinz Ketchup and Hires Root Beer to the acquisitiveness of the American consumer. The Asian import was featured in a garden in the Japanese pavilion. Admired for its profuse and luxurious vegetation and for the tantalizing fragrance of its delicate blossoms, it quickly won favor with the emerging American middle class and kudzu seeds and cuttings were soon thereafter marketed through mail order catalogues. David Fairchild, the head of the USDA Office of Foreign Seed and Plant introduction, experimented with the plant in his home garden in the suburbs of Washington DC in 1902, eventually discovering its suffocating propensity. In his 1938 memoirs, he writes that “… the vine climbed over a precious White Barked Pine … which was growing in my yard at ‘In the Woods,’ near Washington. After trying for years to establish it and succeeding, I spent years of unsuccessful effort to eradicate it.” However, no official action was taken to discourage kudzu plantation and it continued to spread, its prodigious growth a vector for its second historical phase as fodder for livestock.
Charles Pleas, a farmer from Chipley in the Florida panhandle, was one of the earlier recipients of kudzu which he planted as an ornamental. When its aesthetic qualities failed to meet his expectations, he relocated it to a waste area where it flourished, apparently preferring the execrable hardscrabble to the verdancy of the garden. With the serendipity of the chance encounter he noticed that his livestock, inclusive of cows, pigs, goats, horses and chickens, thrived on the copious kudzu leaves. With entrepreneurial ardency he seized on the opportunity; by 1910, he had planted 35 acres of his land with kudzu fodder which he sold locally. He became a life-long advocate of kudzu until his death in 1954, promoting it through the writing of a pamphlet entitled “Kudzu – coming forage of the South” and by opening a mail order business to supply cuttings from his Glen Arden Nursery, now commemorated by a roadside placard on U.S. 90 proclaiming “Kudzu developed here” . However, kudzu never established itself as a viable fodder crop, as farmers who experimented with it found that it was hard to manage and that the vines, which make up a substantial portion of the overall biomass, were not only lacking in nutrients, but tended to clog up farm machinery which was designed for the more friable grasses of traditional silage and not for the tenacious rhizomorphous kudzu. By the 1930’s, only about 10,000 acres of kudzu fodder had been established in the South.
One of its many unintended consequences of the Black Friday stock market crash of 1929 and concomitant depression was the spread of kudzu. Years of intensive monoculture farming of cotton and tobacco in the South had depleted the soil of its nutrients to the extent that it could no longer support vegetation. Eroded and rutted fields led to the diaspora of farmers in the early 1930’s to the more fertile fields of the prairie Midwest and fertile valleys of the West. In a last ditch effort to save the agrarian areas, the government instituted the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which experimented with several erosion control plants and settled on kudzu. This was based on up to twenty years of testing that had been conducted at various government Agricultural Experiment Stations, notably Auburn, Alabama. By 1936, the SCS was embarked on its own kudzu demonstrations, planting thousands of vines in areas denuded by the construction associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority dams and easements. A government subsidy of $8.00 per acre was offered to farmers to plant kudzu, encouraged by government publications extolling its virtues as soil fixer and fodder proffered by official Panglossian testimonials; Hugh Bennet, the head of the SCS remarking “what, short of a miracle, can you call this plant?” The end result was that by the end of the decade, over 73 million seedlings had been produced and the Civilian Construction Corps (CCC) had succeeded in planting kudzu in every southern state. The Kudzu Club of America was founded in Atlanta Georgia in 1943 by Channing Cope, the self-proclaimed “father of kudzu.”
There is no clear line of demarcation between the era of kudzu the Palladium and kudzu the bane. The peripety occurred sometime in the early 1950’s, likely a result of the increasingly obvious extent to which kudzu had metastasized from its original plantations to dominate the landscape in many areas, spreading at rates of up to 200 square miles per year. The USDA officially removed kudzu from its recommended cover crop list in 1953, ultimately relegating it to weed status in 1972. Since then, the focus has been on containment and localized eradication, a laborious process dictated by the tenacity of the plant; the root crowns and the running rhizomes that emanate from it must be forcibly extracted and the resulting stump treated with one of several herbicides. Dense copses of kudzu may require up to ten years of monitoring and selective retreatment to fully extirpate. The effects of long term applications of kudzu control toxins are wistfully rationalized as not excessively harmful to other plants and to animals; however, long-term effects are indeterminate. Kudzu is not a problem in Asia as it is kept in check by the ecological balance of indigenous insects and other environmental factors so that its inherent beneficent properties have become manifest.
Kudzu is a very bountiful plant if properly managed. Aside from its demonstrated propensity to hold depleted soil as an erosion control agent and its potential as a nutritious and succulent fodder, it is a member of the pea family of legumes. This property is vital to the restoration of soil, which becomes depleted of key resources, notably nitrogen, when used continuously to produce crops – every harvest a nitrate drain. Absent the application of natural or artificial fertilizers to restore the nitrogen balance, the land becomes xeric. Legumes do not directly absorb gaseous nitrogen from the air but rather provide a habitat in swellings called nodules or tubercles on their roots for nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Actually, the bacteria create their own habitat by penetrating the root cells and stimulating the creation of their characteristic root edemas. Once ensconced, the bacteria absorb atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to produce ammonia (NH3) with energy in the form of sugars provided by the plant – in this case kudzu – which benefits by using excess ammonia to use in its own growth. It is one of the more important mutualistic relationships and epitomizes the interdependence of the different kingdoms of the biosphere in the ecological balance – plants depend on nitrogen-fixing bacteria and the animals and fungi depend on the plants. It is for this fundamental reason that kudzu can thrive in sere environments, and in fact restore them.
Kudzu has been used as a medicine in China for several millennia. The first written reference appears in the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, a compilation of medicinal plants which appeared about 100 CE; it is based on the legendary and mythological Emperor of the Five Grains known as Shen Nong (‘divine farmer’ in Chinese) who purportedly tasted hundreds of herbs to determine their medicinal value some 5,000 years ago. Relatively recent phytochemical analysis methods have revealed that kudzu has high levels (up to 12 percent) of the isoflavones puerarin, daidzin and daidzein. It is currently listed in the Pharmacopeia of the People’s Republic of China as a treatment for various debilities including fever, back pain, headaches and heart disease. However, kudzu has a considerably broader usage according to Chinese folk traditions for treating ailments ranging from angina pectoris to tinnitus and inclusive of alcohol abuse. The use of kudzu as a treatment for alcohol dependency has gained it entry to the staid conservatism of the Occidental medical establishment. Based on a 1992 Shin-Yang University study that demonstrated the efficacy in reducing the alcohol intake of what are described as “alcohol-preferring” laboratory rats, an experiment was run with humans by the Harvard University affiliated McLean Hospital in Boston in 2005. The experiment, which consisted of a mockup apartment complete with lounge chair, television and an adequate supply of cold beer, revealed that the not unwilling volunteer subjects who were administered kudzu drank half as much beer (1.8 versus 3.5 cans) as those who received a placebo. The experimental results, which were later published in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research” (ACER), did not resolve the fundamental question concerning the effects of kudzu. Did people drink less beer because the kudzu reduced their desire for alcohol or because it enhanced its inebriating effects? Recently, it was determined that kudzu contains serotonin and that it lessens the pain of migraine headaches. Thus, plausibly, kudzu could also be used for hangovers.