I never really gave it much thought, but over the summer, as I drove through Virginia’s southern counties, its pervasiveness intrigued me. I did some research and now I find the plant fascinating, or at least, its story. It’s a story of compromise.
Kudzu came to America in the 1800s the way sin enters one’s life—as a beautiful and desirable object from a distant land we’d heard of, but never seen. Let’s not call kudzu alien or unnatural to the region…that sounds so unrefined; how about exotic? What a delightfully mysterious word, exotic.
All the nicest gardens just had to have Japanese kudzu, that hearty and lush vine-bush that grew quickly and provided wonderful shade. Of course, like all exotic possessions, it came at a steep price, but with a little reshuffling of funds (perhaps we could use that money set aside for charity this month…?) status quo was obtained.
During the depression era, someone discovered that kudzu could stop soil erosion. The government began pressuring southern farmers to take it out of their pots and gardens and plant it around their fields and along highways; they pressured the way young men pressure young women to do things they ought not. In some cases, the government even paid farmers to defile their soil. And the farmers agreed, because, well, everyone was doing it. And besides, it wasn’t exactly unpleasant.
Soon, the farmers realized they’d made a mistake, and that new life was being created at rapid rates. The government said, “Wow, that’s quite a mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” and turned away. They went back to Washington, removed it from their list of species acceptable for use under the Agricultural Conservation Program, and labeled it a weed.
Kudzu planted its roots deep into the Georgia and South Carolina soil, strengthening into a network of obstinate toddler-like tendrils that shot up and raced across the ground, stopping to climb mailboxes and telephone poles. It was cute at the beginning, like a child’s first swear words, or those “But I wanted a trophy!” temper tantrums that we’d video tape, chuckling. Coddling fools, we lifted some of the barriers so they wouldn’t feel stifled—anything to keep the little ones happy. Next thing we knew, the vine children became rebellious teenagers, racing over and past farmland boundaries, pushing down fences, climbing over walls of absolute truth that blocked their paths, and yelling, “Progress through freedom!”
Throughout the late 1900s, the vines thrived through a system of situational ethics supported by the motto, “anything goes if it benefits me.” They started climbing trees, wrapping their manipulative tendrils around even the tallest and heartiest species.
Townspeople noticed, but did nothing.
“The leaves make a pretty contrast against the forest, and it isn’t hurting anyone,” they’d say to protesters. “Stop being so dramatic and show some tolerance, for Pete’s sake.”
Others said, “Sheesh! It’s not as bad as cogon grass or privet, so what’s all the fuss over a few weeds?”
The trees noticed though, because they’d become embroiled in a battle over light and nutrients, and the war was very real to them.
Sadly, their age and wisdom were no match for agility and avarice, and millions of acres from Florida to North Carolina (and now Virginia) and as far west as Texas were smothered and choked. Kudzu and other weeds like it now consume an estimated 150,000 acres of trees and other flora each year. Under every one of those delightful green towers (look Dad, that one is shaped like a clown!) is a dead or dying tree that once contributed greatly to our ecosystem.
In 1998 it was listed by the U.S. Congress as a Federal Noxious Weed, but this fancy label didn’t come with an eradication plan. Besides, some people enjoyed it. They fed it to their animals, made baskets, and chopped it up to use as fertilizer.
“I’ve got it under control in my back yard; I’m not too worried about your problems.”
In Japan, it’s made into jelly, so we may as well make room on the store shelves now. It’s coming, whether you like it or not. If you don’t, you’re a hater.
Can it be defeated? Possibly. People once tried to introduce an insect that supposedly eats the kudzu vine. Regrettably, it also devoured soybean crops. They’ve tried locating the root crown, which can be quite deep, and destroying it, but some reports say even the tiniest sliver of surviving crown can regenerate. Many eradication methods could work, but it will require a strong stand against compromise and a lot of effort. Too much effort it seems, now that the beast has been allowed to run wild for so long. In some regions entire houses, barns, and silos have been overrun, as if it were easier to leave than fight. Perhaps the owners just didn’t want to be seen as bullies.
Yes, it’s bleak out there, but what do you think? Is the battle lost?
“Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” — James 1:15