Smithsonian, you’ve done it again. I usually find the best articles about plants and gardening in publications that do not restrict themselves to gardening content.
This one is from September, 2015 – but I hadn’t seen it and it was kind of mind-blowing. The title gives that much away: “The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the South.”
In my world, it has utterly been a given that kudzu is a demonic creeper and climber fully capable of swallowing entire landscapes whole. We don’t have it in Western New York, but I have seen it along the roadside during many drives through the Southern states, taking the form of the trees, shrubs and telephone poles it had enveloped. Unfortunately, I have never gotten close enough to it to experience the grape-scented flowers, much less the purple honey bees who visit it can produce.
Kudzu is one of those legendary invasives. You’d almost use it as a stand-in explainer for what invasive plants are –”You know, like kudzu.” Not so fast, says Bill Finch, a Mobile-based horticulturalist and writer. In this delightful article, Finch gives the history of kudzu and explains why, in this case, looks may be deceiving. Here’s a quote:
In the latest careful sampling, the U.S. Forest Service reports that kudzu occupies, to some degree, about 227,000 acres of forestland, an area about the size of a small county and about one-sixth the size of Atlanta. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of the South’s 200 million acres of forest. By way of comparison, the same report estimates that Asian privet had invaded some 3.2 million acres—14 times kudzu’s territory. Invasive roses had covered more than three times as much forestland as kudzu.
There’s no paywall that I can see, so I won’t quote or paraphrase further. Please do read the article. It explores the myths and legends as well as the science.
Kudzu does have a larger-than-life presence in popular culture, even literature. Or maybe I should just say fiction. I remember an Erica Jong novel where the lead character regularly swims in a pond or small lake so filled with kudzu that she has to constantly move it out of the way. It becomes a meditative experience for her.
We have plants up here that can barely be mentioned on social media without a chorus of scolding and invective. Most recently, it’s become difficult to discuss buddleia, campsis, wisteria, rose of sharon, and a few others, none of which are on any government-recognized list in my region, by the way. And then there are all the “invasive” bugs and worms people caution each other to look out for. And do what? I have learned to drown out most of this stuff.
I love this article because it shows us how we can learn about and enjoy what we have – even if it’s kudzu.
P.S. In a 2021 Slate article that is also quite good, this prediction appears: By 2060, the Forest Futures Project forecasts, kudzu, if left unattended, would not even double its current coverage. So much for the vine growing a “mile a minute.” Japanese honeysuckle and Asian privet, for context, cover 10.3 million and 3.2 million acres, respectively.
P.P.S.: Another great read on kudzu from the Bitter Southerner.