It's the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy

Trashing Out with Kudzu and ‘Sherman’s Ghost’

Kudzu is the poster child for invasive plants. The vine that gobbled up more than seven million acres in the south became the unintended consequence of the USDA’s plan to stop erosion. When African-Americans, in 1910, began their migration from the rural south to northern cities, the vine would eventually go wild.

Kudzu the wrong way near Pineville, Kentucky.

Kudzu the wrong way near Pineville, Kentucky.

Marco Polo wrote about kudzu (he called it ko), but it was centuries before someone compared the flower fragrance to grape Nehi soda.

Jesuits in Siam, in the 1660s, were hyping its potential textile use. Kudzu gathered steam. The Japanese displayed six kudzu plants at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. (Three plants stayed behind with Emperor Franz Joseph.) The Japanese figured they were onto something.  Kudzu made its American premiere, touted as a “miracle plant,” at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition (the first official American World’s Fair).

No one thought the Japanese disingenuous for stealing all the thunder for a Chinese species. And Americans paid little mind to kudzu for the next fifty years. Seeds wouldn’t germinate, and hopes for miracles were dashed.

But then something else happened. What that is remains unclear, but horticulturist and historian John Peter Thompson speculates that multiple botanical varieties were openly pollinated on USDA research stations, and the resulting seed germination, coupled with hybrid vigor, produced the invasive kudzu we know today.

Kudzu on the march. Photo credit: USDA

Kudzu on the march.
Photo credit: USDA

And now a variegated version has come along that has stirred a new hornet’s nest: Would anybody in his or her right mind plant kudzu—in any form?

On a closed Facebook group of zany plant geeks, an interesting and civil discussion evolved. The group’s name will remain secret. (Indeed, it might even be beyond the scope of the NSA. Botanical Latin is too bewildering to geeks of another realm, who rarely see the light of day and are more fascinated with computer code than biota.)

'Sherman's Ghost' kudzu

‘Sherman’s Ghost’ kudzu

On a recent Facebook post titled: “Trashing Out with Kudzu,” a member showed a photo of the variegated kudzu cultivar, ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ and asked, “Want some?!” The responses came tumbling:

   “I need some of this!!!”

Of course, they wanted some. Covetous wretches! Well, some did. Others thought ill of the idea.  (Point of reference: I lean toward covetous wretch.)

   “ Very Noxious weed that nothing will kill it and spreads like wild fire. You might as well be sharing poison ivy.”

   “Horrors. But it is pretty.”

I first saw Pueraria montana var. lobata  ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ in 2011 at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, NC. The variegated kudzu was planted on a pergola. Skinny vines were neatly spaced and hung from the trellis to nearly the ground. The provocative planting looked like vertical blinds.

Landscape planting of 'Sherman's Ghost' at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum.    Photo credit: J.C. Raulston Arboretum

Landscape planting of ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum.
Photo credit: J.C. Raulston Arboretum

General William Tecumseh Sherman was the Civil War Union General who marched across Georgia to the sea, ransacking everything as he went. The kudzu cultivar ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the Union General is back with a vegetal vengeance to conquer more of the south.  Or maybe the north and west?

   “It’s kudzu fer gawds sake. WTF! Really? You’re gonna plant it?
”

There’s no evidence ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ has gone anywhere that it is not wanted.

But in spite of earlier noble plans to use kudzu for food, fuel, flowers and forage, kudzu’s history in the south has badly tarnished the vining legume’s future popularity.

   “I’m intrigued, but alas it’s illegal here.”

Citizens of New York are forbidden ownership of ‘Sherman’s Ghost’—or any kudzu kin. It hardly matters that a young William Tecumseh Sherman attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. So much for that.

Is there a variegated alternative? Variegated poison ivy, if you can find it, is up for grabs. What a great cultivar name: Toxicodendron orientale ‘Seven Year Itch’. But easy does it. It’s an Asian species—an aspirational interloper—not our native poison ivy.

'Silberstein' pokeweed

‘Silberstein’ pokeweed

So if you’re all stars and bars forever, and obsessed by variegated plants, the native pokeweed Phytolacca americana might be your answer. And if you prefer one—and, eventually, and possibly dozens—try ‘Silberstein’ (Silver Stone). Remember: Pokeweeds will seed bomb your garden.

You should pay attention to plantsman Tony Avent’s advice. “We recommend a horticultural circumcision before fruit drop.”

Posted by on October 22, 2014 at 6:15 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy.
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18 responses to “Trashing Out with Kudzu and ‘Sherman’s Ghost’”

  1. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Great post! That pokeweed looks for all the world like my Aucuba ‘Picturata.’
    Btw, I’m a Sherman on my mother’s side and growing up in Richmond, we weren’t allowed to tell anyone that. Susan

  2. David mcMullin says:

    Atlanta representin’ y’all!…
    I have grown that pokeweed. Its a really lovely garden plant. I never had problems with it but kind of wish I had… As for the Kudzu, its been my experience that it is usually a mess in degraded habitats – eroded roadsides, old dumps and abandoned railroads. We still don’t seem to recognize that most “invasive” plants are only being invasive on man-destroyed real estate.
    I kind of love that variegated form and I would probably plant it in the right spot. If I had a warehouse to cover or something…
    Oh, and, on a related note – Kudzu around here took a big hit over the last couple of years at the chewy parts of the imported kudzu beetle but the last winter of artic Canadian iciness killed those beetles and now the Kudzu is PISSED!

  3. Abby says:

    Kudzu isn’t only relegated to abandoned areas. There is kudzu in my backyard across a large stream. I can’t mow it because the stream is too deep to get a mower across and I tried cutting the nodes from the rhizomes, but I’m just one person and can’t get it all. I gave up when I ended up with poison ivy around my midsection (ants bit me, scratched with gloves, spread oils…) because sprouting poison ivy looks a lot like sprouting kudzu (just redder). It’s all I can do to keep it from spreading across the stream.

    I just wish my town allowed goats on 3/4 acre lots.

    • Sandra Pullen says:

      Maybe you could borrow some goats for a few hours.

    • Laura Bell says:

      Out here in Cali, we can rent goats by the handful or by the herd. Maybe you could find someone with a few that would like to take a walk across your stream every few days?

  4. Bill says:

    The Kudzu Bugs were dealt a blow but they are still around here in Decatur, GA. Kudzu did have a good year, though. There used to be goats in a neighboring lot who occasionally escaped into the nearby kudzu and seemed as though they’d just gone to heaven.

  5. Deborah Banks says:

    Those darn plant geeks. I admit that ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ is pretty, but it’s nice to hear that kudzu is illegal in NY. Who the heck would think of creating cultivars of kudzu? But I did just plant the ‘Silberstein’ pokeweed this summer and have great hopes for it. It’s already shown itself to be tough; I planted a baby just before our 6 week drought, and it doubled in size with only minimal hand watering. I also planted ‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey this summer, just to show how foolhardy I am. (Where did you say they sell Sherman’s Ghost? No, just kidding!)

  6. Alice says:

    With less chlorophyll wouldn’t ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ be somewhat weaker than it’s parents? Perhaps it is easier to control but I still wouldn’t plant it. I once saw Kudzu running across a rarely used highway exit ramp; it was early in the morning and I suspect it really grew 10′ overnight.

  7. kermit says:

    When I lived in South Carolina they called pokeweed “poke salad”. Like dandelions, it’s an edible and fairly tasty salad green when young. They used to call it ink berry also, if I recall rightly; the berries form a fairly durable reddish-purple juice suitable for quill pens. Off topic: pen knives are called such because the first ones were used to cut the feather quill ends to make a pen out of it.

    • Allen Bush says:

      Kermit, I’d never heard pokeweed called inkberry but, now, it makes sense. I got a call 20 years ago to collect wild pokeberries. The customer was a Polish firm. They wanted to grow plants for the ink that the berries produced. Polish meat was inspected and stamped with pokeweed ink. Thanks, also for the interesting origin of the pen knife.

      • Joe Schmitt says:

        We called it inkberry back in the forties and fifties on Long Island also. It wasn’t until I moved to Delaware that I heard poke weed, and not until a later move to West Virginia that I heard poke sallet, not salad, an old or, rather, middle English word, and the complete phrase was a “mess of poke sallet”. Mess was another very old word, not at all referring to lack of order. Lots of Elizabethan English survives in West Virginia, such as stob as a stump and ruck as the past tense of the verb to rake. Back to Delaware, It was there that I first encountered the use of creesy greens to refer to the spring rosettes of various mustards (or cress) a traditional spring tonic after months of canned vegetables, and the source of “can’t cut the mustard”, one of the last tasks relegated to the very elderly in the family. If you could no longer even cut the mustard, well, there wasn’t much left you could do.

  8. Joe Schmitt says:

    It just occurred to me that a warning is in order about trying out a “mess of poke sallet” now or in the spring. Do so only after extensive reading, or you will end up a mess of another sort or, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. Start with the Wikipedia entry on Phytolacca americana (hands up, don’t shoot to the nomenclature Nazis – I don’t know how to get italics to work here).

    • kermit says:

      Yikes! That’ll teach me to pass on information without running it by the experts; I’m not really trying to kill off fellow gardeners. Food only for the hungry, careful, and lucky.

      • Joe Schmitt says:

        My understanding has always been to use only the early shoots as one might use asparagus, and then not in too large a “dose”. The stuff is very laxative. On the other hand, asparagus is generally available at the same time and its side effects, while noticeable, are harmless as far as I know.

  9. david mcmullin says:

    My grandfather stank up our house every spring cooking up a mess of poke salad. He picked it new – in march or so in Tennessee – and would boil it down, pour out the water and do it again… three times in all to wash out the poison. While it did smell like hell it was nice served with corn or cracklin bread and spring onions.
    It definitely was the food of poor people who, by early spring, had “run shed’ of winter provisions and hadn’t quite made it to the salad days of spring crops and greens.
    My grandmother, I should mention, was always thoroughly annoyed at my grandfather for stinking up the house and reminding her of times she’d as soon forget.

  10. Allen Bush says:

    And there was Tony Joe White’s Poke Salad Annie…”Sock a little poke sallet to me, you know I need a mess of it.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrT-TQTLoiw

  11. jon polvado says:

    I was doing some reading about kudzu and the article mentioned a fellow who used it in a fertilizer that he used to grow record vegetables. If I remember correctly it was prepared much as comfrey in making liquid fertilizer. It was reported that he considered it an ingredient.

    jon

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