Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kudzu Critters and The Plight of the Suthun Farmer

It's called KUDZU (K-UH-D-zoo) and it's more than a weed, it's the enemy of the entire south. Not since General Sherman marched to the sea destroying everything in his path has something so single minded taken root in Southern Soil. Kudzu vines are not content to just grow up and around trees, telephone poles and inanimate objects (such as the car above) they grow into the cracks and crevaces making it even harder to get rid of. Not only that, but it grows fast. Take that car, for example. In the springtime, the vines can grow inches over night so this car may have been sitting there for only a few weeks rather than months or years as one might expect. (I hope that the driver got out ok...)

But where did this insideous green plant come from, you ask? (Oh good, you're asking questions, that means you're paying attention) Kudzu was introduced to the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms of kudzu captured the imagination of American gardeners who used the plant for ornamental purposes. In the 1920's, the Glen Arden Nursery in Chipley, Florida sold thousands of kudzu plants through the mail. A historical marker there proudly proclaims "Kudzu Developed Here." During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu for erosion control. It was easy to plant, took to the soil quicky and grew faster than anything else they had. Hundreds of young men were given work planting kudzu through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Farmers were paid as much as eight dollars an acre as incentive to plant fields of the vines in the 1940s. In 1953, however the US Government stopped advocating the use of Kudzu and in 1972, the poor maligned plant was formally declared a weed.
I was first introduced to Kudzu by my daughter on a long trip across the south to visit family. The way in which the plant spread out and covered everything in its path with a blanket of wide leaves created rather startling looking 'monsters' which she was sure were lurking there next to the highway waiting to reach out and grab our car. To keep her creative little mind off "monsters," we nicknamed them 'kudzu critters' (Yes, lower case to keep them friendly) and encouraged her to see friendly 'muppet' like critters in the odd and unusual shapes. Soon she was seeing cute bears, 'agalators' (yes, agalators, I kid you not) and even two headed 'efalumps' as the miles sailed by. To this day I cannot look at a field of Kudzu without thinking of them as critters.
Any Suthunah with more than a bit of land will tell you (in graphic and somewhat colorful language) what a pain Kudzu is to get rid of. You can cut it down and it practically grows back overnight. (There are poems and songs which entreat the southunah to keep the windows closed at night to keep the Kudzu from getting in!) Yet there are recipes (yes, you can eat it!) out there on the internet and people make everything from baskets to paper from the vines. (Oddly, has nothing to do with the plant...go figure...)

You won't find Kudzu in California (probably because the air is too dry) nor will you find it in New York (probably because of their abrasive attitude). Kudzu is a Suthun plant with Suthun sensibilities. Once invited in, it wants to stick around a while. So, the next time you're on a drive through the Smokies or across the delta, look for the friendly Kudzu critters and tell them I said Hi.

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