This desolate Georgia highway is swallowed in kudzu. Deep green vines have overtaken acres of pines. The avalanches of leaves spill into ditches.
I don’t hate kudzu. Certainly, I know it’s a noxious weed. But so are white clovers and creeping thistles, and I kind of like them, too. Also, I’ve always wondered why we call some flowers weeds but not others.
I will forever remember one childhood summer, when I planted purple kudzu flowers into a shoebox of potting soil, purely out of curiosity. Afterwhich the Baptist Women’s Bible Study Brigade sentenced me to public execution.
Kudzu was the devil’s work, they said. I never got a fair trial.
This road is the perfect place to see flowering vines that grow in all directions, like nests of copperheads, swallowing everything. I’ll bet if vehicles quit driving this route the vines would eat the old highway.
Kudzu has a bad name, so I’ve always been forced to admire it in secret. To me, the flowers look like something from Eden, and a hillside of leaves is beautiful.
I sincerely hope the ladies’ Bible study group isn’t reading this.
The Japanese vine was officially introduced to the U.S. at Philadelphia’s World’s Fair in 1876. This was the same fair that unveiled an enormous iron-and-copper French sculpture that would later be nicknamed “the Statue of Liberty.”
The Japanese pavilion displayed exotic East Asian things like ceramics, archeological artifacts, Japanese magnolias, cinnamon-bark crepe myrtles, and a floor show featuring Tony Orlando.
Also, a small decorative vine with a purple flower.
But nobody paid attention to kudzu until 60 years later when dust storms started browbeating the prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. The government turned to kudzu for salvation. Congress announced that kudzu would end erosion by stabilizing soil. And they paid eight bucks per acre to anyone who planted it.
Eight bucks during the Depression was serious cash. People planted the stuff wherever they could shove it.
The highway kudzu I’m looking at right now, however, was probably planted by railway companies, put here to beautify barren hillsides, clear-cut forests, and places where engineers blasted into the bedrock to lay new tracks.
There’s also a chance our great grannies planted some of this stuff.
Americans were CUH-ray-zee for kudzu. Back in the day, they had kudzu-planting contests, kudzu beauty pageants, kudzu picnics, and even a Kudzu Club of America with 20,000 members. The club’s mission was to plant 8 million acres of it.
And you will swear I’m making this next tidbit up, but I’m not. A single kudzu vine grows at the rate of one foot per day. That’s half an inch per hour.
Old-timers still call the stuff “mile-a-minute vine,” or “foot-a-night vine.” And even though most Baptist women hate the plant—and I mean REALLY hate it—kudzu actually has a few pros.
The roots contain a bacteria that absorbs nitrogen from the air, then turns it into high-quality plant food. It can feed nearby flora for miles. Some rare gardeners claim that kudzu is actually wonderful stuff. Of course these people are usually crazier than runover cats, too.
For instance, I know an elderly woman named Wanda who always wore a big sunhat and zinc on her nose. She claimed kudzu tea helped her husband overcome alcoholism. She swore by the stuff. Then again, she also believed that Elvis was still alive and hiding in the Rocky Mountains.
Of course most experts agree that kudzu is wicked. It steals sunlight from other plants and smothers them. And a lot of people feel kudzu has destroyed our natural southeastern landscape. This is why the plant is a tender subject with some folks.
If you don’t believe me, just plant some in a shoebox when you’re a kid. Five Baptist women will drag you behind the church and take turns swatting you with pocketbooks.
Then these matronly women will sit you down and explain that kudzu is a curse. They will tell you that it covers approximately 9 million acres in the U.S. Also, you’d better shut your windows at night because it can crawl into bedrooms and choke little boys who leave their dirty dishes in the sink without even rinsing them.
I would never contradict Mama’s study group, because they carry very heavy pocketbooks. But I can tell you that in 2010 the U.S. Forest Service said the vine only covered about 227,000 acres in the U.S. Which is a far cry from 9 million, and a lot less than anyone thought.
Then, the Forest Service drove the final nail into their own coffin when they said kudzu wasn’t wicked. Sure they admitted that it’s bad. But they also said there were worse things out there. Like the Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, and pop-country music.
When I look at this invasive vine, I’m swallowed by memories. And that can’t be all bad.
I see childhood summers, and walks through dense forests behind my aunt‘s house, quilted with strange leaves. I remember kudzu mats towering high, and hairy tentacles with fragrant violet flowers.
But above all, when I tour an old highway draped in kudzu, I will forever remember a shoebox filled with potting soil. And several matronly women who scolded me, setting me straight, who warned me to never touch the stuff.
I will also remember the words of an elderly eccentric woman in a sunhat, who pulled me aside that day and whispered:
“God doesn’t make weeds.”
If I go missing, the ladies’ Bible study group did it.