Southern Cultures 7.3 (2001) 49-64
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A Tale of Two Vines
Derek H. Alderman and Donna G'Segner Alderman
City leaders in Tallahassee, Florida, recently started a program that uses sheep to graze on large, troublesome patches of kudzu within the city. Several summers ago, Greenville, South Carolina, hosted the filming and theatrical debut of "Kudzula," the story of a ten-year-old boy who saves a town from over-development with the help of a forty-foot kudzu creature. 1 As these incidents suggest, the story of kudzu is a "tale of two vines." Existing simultaneously in the realms of nature and culture, kudzu--like southern culture in general--is open to multiple interpretations and representations. In Tallahassee, kudzu is a pest. Like visiting relatives, the plant has overstayed its welcome. In Greenville, on the other hand, people not only pay $19 to watch a play about kudzu, but in that play, kudzu saves the day.
Perhaps no other part of the natural environment is more closely identified with the South than this invasive and fast growing vine. Yet relatively few academics have examined kudzu and its place within southern culture and the larger American experience. And southerners both endure and embrace this pervasive part of life. Some wage an ecological battle against kudzu, while others use and market the vine in creative ways. Both southerners and nonsoutherners identify with kudzu as a symbol and incorporate the plant into daily cultural expression, including the language used to characterize and understand social and environmental change. As a national news wire reports, "So aggressive is kudzu that the word has entered American English as shorthand for out-of-control growth." 2 In this respect, the plant illustrates the tremendous impact the American South has made, and continues to make, on national culture.
While kudzu may seem native to the South, it is an exotic species alien to the region and the country. The plant was introduced to America from Japan in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and to the South in 1883 at the New Orleans Exposition. For the next few decades, kudzu served primarily as ornamental shade for homes, particularly porches. Later, despite early warnings about the vine's aggressive nature, the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Conservation Service, and other government agencies promoted kudzu as a public resource. Kudzu is comparable nutritionally to alfalfa and was first touted as a form of pasturage for feeding livestock--although cutting, handling, and baling the vine proved to be problematic. Kudzu reached the height of its popularity in the late 1930s as a tool in soil conservation, a means of replenishing nitrogen-poor soils and controlling erosion along fields and road banks. Historian Kurt Kinbacher has characterized the story of kudzu as "tangled" in the sense that the vine does not have just one historical role or identity in the region. Its value to humans has shifted with public opinion, advancements in science, and the changing demands of American agriculture. 3 [End Page 50]
Kudzu as Panacea, Pest, and Product
Kudzu rose in status through the careful cultivation of its image by several important individuals and groups. Kudzu's first promoters, Charles and Lillie Pleas of Florida, experimented with using kudzu as forage for animals in the early 1900s and later sold kudzu plants and rootstock through a mail order business. A roadside historical marker on Highway 90 in Chipley, Florida, recognizes their efforts in developing kudzu for agricultural use. 4
Perhaps the most vocal and interesting of kudzu's supporters was Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia. Cope promoted the conversion of "wasteland" into kudzu pastures through his daily radio programs and articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is credited with starting the Kudzu Club of America in the early 1940s, which had a membership of twenty thousand by 1943. The club embraced the goal of planting 1 million acres of kudzu in Georgia and 8 million acres in the South overall. In his 1949 book titled Front Porch Farmer, Cope equated the planting...