Monday, January 05, 2009

Slice of American Life: Kudzu

Being the southern boy that I am, I decided I would talk about kudzu today. Kudzu is a climbing, perennial vine capable of reaching heights of 20–30 m (66-98 ft) in trees, but also scrambles extensively over lower vegetation. If you drive on any highway or interstate in the Southeastern US, you'll see this plant covering most of the ground on either side of the road.

Apparently, it was introduced to the US from Japan in the late 1800's. It was not planted in many places because of its known tendency to sprawl out of control and dominate the local vegetation. However, the Dust Bowl was at it's height in the Midwest and southern economies were concerned that their own over farming and erosion would lead to the same outcome.

In fact, it was part of The New Deal as well. Whenever an interstate was built, kudzu was planted alongside of the road to prevent landslides, rock falls and soil erosion. So, farmers planted kudzu in high-risk areas. The problem was that the climate of the south is a lot more humid than the dry and breezy Midwest and the moisture in the soil prevented such erosion. It also had an added bonus that many residents liked.

"[People started]...planting kudzu to shade their porches and to enjoy the purple blooms, which smell like grape bubble gum."

Now, the South is covered and it is extremely expensive to kill and remove. This is what most highways and waterways look like....

Here's my house.

I actually like the plant. I know it's bothersome, but I think it's a little charming and apparently, I'm not alone.
"Nancy Basket doesn't see kudzu as the pestering green weed that grows so fast that legend has it the vines can swallow up a cow before the poor animal can escape. Basket sees woven kudzu baskets and brightly colored cards made from kudzu paper. She sees kudzu soap and kudzu jelly. "Kudzu is not ugly or bad. It's not right or wrong," she says. "It's here for a reason, and we might as well find a way to use it." At her studio in her home, she displays baskets made of kudzu. Some are the size of a thumbnail, others as big as a beach ball, but each just as richly textured as the more famous sweet grass baskets made by the Gullah people along the S.C. and Georgia coasts. Head into her back yard, and the walls of her studio are made of baled kudzu. On a cold January morning, the gully behind her house is a tangled knot of thousands of dull brown vines, but Basket says by May it will be as rich and green as Ireland."

My wife and I are moving the US soon as well. Maybe we should use her logic.
"That's why I chose the house," Basket said. "There was kudzu growing on the door."


Harriet said...

Good ol' kudzu! It deserves a blog of its own.