The Vine That Ate The South

“…the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house”

-James Dickey

I don’t know that I ever paid attention to the vine swallowing much of North Carolina’s landscape until I read Kudzu by James Dickey in high school. After dissecting the poem, I remember seeing it everywhere.

If you’ve ever driven through North Carolina, you’ve seen it too. The vigorous vine snakes over trees, fields, and the occasional abandoned home, forming thick green canopies on our roadsides.

Known as “the vine that ate the South,” kudzu is one of the most prolific plants in our area. A single root produces multiple vines that creep out in every which direction, and each vine can spread up to 60 feet in a growing season.

The plant is so abundant that one would assume it is native to our region, but the green giant hails from Asia. Japan introduced the species to the USA during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There, gardeners fell in love with the heart-shaped leaves and grape Kool-aid scented flowers.

For the next fifty years, kudzu lived out a quiet existence as an ornamental vine. It probably would have continued as a garden plant if it weren’t for the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s.

During the “Dust Bowl,” soil erosion became a national threat. What little rain fell washed away the topsoil, leaving fields infertile and threatening local food supplies. To combat the problem, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu.

The SCS grew millions of seedlings and paid $8 an acre to anyone who cultivated the vine. Over a million acres were planted by 1945. Less than a decade later, kudzu made its great escape into the wild, and by 1953 the government stopped supporting its use.

Kudzu was declared a weed in 1972, but by then, the plant had established itself as part of the Southern landscape. The plant grew in everyone’s minds to mythic proportions. According to old timers, the vine that ate the South grows a mile a minute and plays refuge to beds of snakes.

Of course, it’s not as bad as it has been made out to be. Asian privet and invasive roses are actually worse threats to our ecosystem. And despite what James Dickey had to say, there’s no need to close the windows to keep the kudzu out.

I know all this – and yet, I still don’t want it to find a home in my yard.

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