Rise and Decline of the "Miracle Vine": Kudzu in the Southern Landscape
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RISE AND DECLINE OF THE 'MIRACLE VINE": KUDZU IN THE SOUTHERN LANDSCAPE John J. Winberry and David M. Jones* Characteristic of the southern rural landscape are areas overwhelmed by a lush viny plant, which has engulfed fields, trees, poles, billboards, and abandoned dwellings in a sea of leafy green tendrils. The perpetrator of these eerie, fantastic scenes is Kudzu (Piieraria lobata), also known to southern rural folk as "porch vine," "wonder vine," "miracle vine," "mile-a-minute vine," "foot-a-night vine," or simply "the vine." (Jj Its apparent ubiquity suggests an indigenous origin but, in fact, it has been in the South less than a century. Like water hyacinth, an introduced plant which infests canals and rivers, kudzu today is considered a nuisance. In contrast, however, it has played a variety of roles since its late nineteenth century introduction. This paper traces kudzu as a southern landscape element through four periods corresponding to these changing roles: (1) 1876-1910, introduction and use as an ornamental , (2) 1910-1935, limited use as pasturage and for hay production, (3) 1935-1955, widespread use in soil conservation and recognition by some as a panacea for southern agriculture, and (4) 1955 to present, decline to the status of general pest. DISTRIBUTION AND PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS. Kudzu is a climbing, perennial legume, characterized by broad, tri-foliate leaves and woody stems. The vine thrives in areas with a minimum annual rainfall of 40 inches, a long growing season, and a mild winter; as a result, its distribution in the United States is generally restricted to the southeastern states (Figure 1). (2) The vine has been reported in Washington, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and even Nova Scotia, but in none of these areas does it establish large, viable stands. (3) Kudzu can grow on almost any soil, establish itself on rugged land that will support neither trees nor crops, and because of its deep tap root (which extends three to six feet below the surface), flourish during relatively dry periods. (4) The plant is seldom bothered by insects or plant diseases, and any damage to its leaves is overcome by a prolific production of foliage.(5) Kudzu begins its growing season in the early spring as green tendrils radiate from the tap root. These often extend sixty feet and climb obstacles as high as forty feet during a season (they supposedly can * Dr. Winberry is assistant professor and Mr. Jones is instructor of geography at the University of South Carolina. This paper was accepted for publication in August 05 0 i > O W 8 a > a M Fieure 1. Distribution of Kudzu in the Southeastern United States—1970 Vol. XIII, No. 2 63 grow twelve inches a day under ideal conditions!) By late summer the twining vines establish a ground cover two to four feet thick. In late August or early September, suspended clusters of fragrant purple flowers appear. Hairy pods about two inches long then form, but in the United States these seldom contain seed. At the first killing frost, kudzu loses its green leaves and dies down to the root leaving only a tangle of woody stems and a mat of brown leaves until the following April. Because it infrequently sets seed in the United States, kudzu is started by crowns or by seedlings grown from imported seed. Despite its ability to grow under adverse conditions, the establishment of a new plot is not easy and requires preparation of the soil and fertilization. (6)Once established, however, kudzu tends to dominate by overwhelming all other vegetation and quickly spreads beyond the limits of its initial planting. This rapid spread is facilitated by the vine's ability to establish crowns or new tap roots at nodes along the stems. During the following growing season these new roots independently send out their own tendrils to repeat the process. INTRODUCTION-USE AS AN ORNAMENTAL (1876-1910). Kudzu is indigenous to China and occurs also in Japan. The Chinese value the plant primarily for its root; this provides a starch from which is made a popular kind of flour (ko-fen). In ancient China, various parts of the plant had medicinal uses. A decoction from the root...