Finer Than Kudzu

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.

Eight million.

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.


  1. Carol Pepper - August 5, 2020 7:03 am

    Love this one, Sean. I think just about everyone has a Kudzu story or two.
    My grandfather was a railroad man and I remember him thinking it was “pretty good stuff”!
    Thanks for the memory!

  2. Gordon - August 5, 2020 8:05 am

    In South Africa we have Cosmos Bipinnatus or Mexican Aster. We got it from you guys and our do-gooders hate them. They’re real purdy, though.
    We tell kids who waste food that the real name is “kos mors” or food wastage in Afrikaans and they only grow where bad kids go to die.

  3. Nita - August 5, 2020 8:50 am

    I couldn’t get past “crazier than run over cats.” I’ll have to wait a while to get over that and go back to read the rest.

    Crazy Alabama Cat Lady

  4. Sue Rhodus - August 5, 2020 10:03 am

    Who knew ?? Kudzo facts !! I did not know about the vengeance on little boys !! the church ladies told you that one 😀

  5. Jan Leeth - August 5, 2020 10:39 am

    I usually steer away from horticulture early in the morning; but Kudzu piqued my curiosity. I should have known you could make an entertaining story out of it while teaching me a few things. Thank you for your humorous and faith filled observational masterpieces. I am so glad I have been able to spend time in your world on a regular basis. Keep on keeping on!

  6. Nancy Miller - August 5, 2020 11:06 am

    In Spartanburg, Sc we have an historic neighborhood called Converse Heights. We have maybe 25 goats that were
    Put there by the Tree Coalition to eat the Kudzu from a Ravine that runs through the middle of the neighborhood. Fun to
    Visit the goats and see how much
    Progress they have made eating their
    Through Kudzu

  7. RCK - August 5, 2020 11:41 am

    Loved hearing about the Converse Heights Kudzu-eating goats, Nancy! As for Kudzu… mother and grandmother always preached, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

  8. Joretta Parker - August 5, 2020 12:05 pm

    In defense of Kudzoo, It is also edible. There are many recipes out there for candy and others goodies.

  9. Debbie O’Donnell - August 5, 2020 12:30 pm

    Memories of the smell of those small purple flowers. Hot still days of August and the incredible smell of grape bubblegum. Riding horseback on the powerlines. You will see those swathes of green are alive with all kinds of critters and bugs. Nice day trip. Thank you.

  10. MR Russell - August 5, 2020 1:24 pm

    Only Sean Dietrich can make an article about kudzu this hilarious!!!!

  11. Teresa Tindle - August 5, 2020 1:38 pm

    I’ve really learned lot about cudzoo. Probably more than I wanted too. But really, what sticks out more to me, I’ve seen cudzoo all my life. But I’ve never known it had flowers! I’ve never seen one in bloom. Do they bloom in the spring? When. I think I need a road trip to see this for myself.

  12. Ann - August 5, 2020 1:42 pm

    Weeds??… and here I always thought God was creating topiaries along the highways

  13. Berryman Mary M - August 5, 2020 2:00 pm

    God’s Topiaries indeed! What a good analogy! I remember that when I drive by some Kudzu today and smile!😃😃

  14. William Strawn - August 5, 2020 2:27 pm

    And I will come looking for you and we will sing the praises of kudzu together. Well, you will sign and I’ll caterwahl alongside.

  15. Jo - August 5, 2020 2:56 pm

    I love the paragraph toward the end that begins, “I see childhood summers..,”. You are amazing , Sean. Your great writing talent. 😊

  16. Susan - August 5, 2020 2:58 pm

    Kudzu is one of my favorite scents! There is usually a wax melt or lit candle sending the fragrance throughout the house.

  17. James - August 5, 2020 3:53 pm

    A weed is a plant that no one loves. Kudzu qualifies!

  18. Linda Moon - August 5, 2020 4:35 pm

    I think I see a movie in this column: “Attack of the Killer Kudzu” in which the Baptist women are super-heroes with pocketbooks and win the battle. The only kudzu I like is Reed Turchi and His Kudzu Choir. God did a good job with them. Stay on the look out for Baptist women who read, Sean!

  19. Chuck Rich - August 5, 2020 5:05 pm

    Stop through Thomasville, we’d love to show you our great little downtown and unbelievable local eateries. We’ll even ‘mask up’.

  20. Jenny Young - August 5, 2020 5:09 pm

    Don’t tell anyone if you plant a Bradford pear tree either. I’m a garden club member & I planted one when my son was born 27 yrs ago in honor of him. I still love the tree, take his picture in front of it every spring when it blooms, ect. There are rants in my garden groups every year when it blooms. But I have never once pulled a Bradford pear seedling from my flower beds. I have pulled a gazillion redbud & maple tree seedlings.

    When we bought our property in 1989 there was kudzu growing on an eastern facing bank below our house. I’m in nw Arkansas & we have a few kudzu covered highways even this far north. Now, all these years later the kudzu is gone. Taken over by oak, maple, hickory & the Japanese honeysuckle. That stuff doesn’t even die back in the winter when we go below zero here….kudzu does.

    By the way I have never seen a kudzu bloom.
    And I’ve heard you can eat kudzu.

  21. Helen De Prima - August 5, 2020 6:36 pm

    Here in New England, bittersweet is the scourge — kudzu of the north. The woody vines can get as thick as a construction worker’s wrist and climb like a squirrel pursued by a weasel, taking down full-grown maples. Birds love the berries and spread the plague far and wide. So kudzu doesn’t impress me.

  22. Thomas Harris - August 5, 2020 6:44 pm

    Why do you always put Baptists in a bad light?

  23. Mike Bone - August 5, 2020 7:11 pm

    Yankees have their own version of kudzu. It is called “Bittersweet”. You can not kill it. Goats will not eat it. Bad stuff.

  24. catladymac - August 5, 2020 8:13 pm

    Well, if you ever get rid of kudzu do NOT replace it with Multiflora Rose !

  25. Susan Kennedy - August 6, 2020 12:26 pm

    I’m a Baptist and I think Sean’s Baptist references are hilarious, mainly because they’re true!!😂

  26. Michele Sandstead - August 6, 2020 2:54 pm

    Kudzu may be a terribly invasive plant but that pretty purple flower produces an amazing oil! I use it in my soy candle making. It is by far my best selling candle in my antiques shop. I pour into vintage tea cups and antique glassware. Come see me at Flutterby Antiques in Destin! We have been closed with this COVID thing but will reopen by mid-August.

  27. Tammy S. - August 7, 2020 12:23 pm

    Where I grew up, on a farm in West Tennessee, we have miles and miles of country roadsides covered in Kudzu. It always reminds me of home when I see the stuff. I moved from Tennessee to North Carolina when I was 22. I was freshly married to an eager, young 30yo Baptist pastor. Anytime I got homesick, which was often, I would drive down 321 toward Hickory, NC and come to a place alongside the road, covered in kudzu. I’d drive along, glancing over at the big, beautiful, soft green, mounds upon mounds leaves, pretending I was home for a bit. It somehow helped with my homesickness. There was even a power line that had kudzu crept up high, just like home, that looked a bit like a giraffe. Kudzu can be like clouds, taking shape as it moves and grows. Some people just don’t have imagination. Keep picking on the Baptist, Sean, we can take it. And keep teaching the goodness of kudzu. I’m kind of partial to it.

  28. Patricia Gibson - August 7, 2020 8:39 pm

    Great story

  29. Lynn Fletcher Shurden - August 8, 2020 12:52 pm

    You should read Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith. One of the main themes is kudzu.

  30. johnallenberry - August 9, 2020 4:24 am

    I dunno, Sean. Kudzu swallowed my uncle’s house one night back in’76 and nobody’s heard from him since. Folks tried to cut through the vines, but they just kept growing back as fast as we cut ‘em. My Paw Paw burned all the Kudzu off the corner of his pasture and underneath he found Jimmy Hoffa’s remains and the hope chest from the lost colony of Roanoke.

    It’s pretty, sure, but I think the reason the forest service says it’s not evil is it’s holding somebody’s family hostage!

    Allen, PhDude

  31. JOSEPH MCDERMOTT - August 9, 2020 2:56 pm

    As a guess, because they are the dominant faith where he grew up. If he had grown up in Boston Ma. it would likely be Catholic.

  32. Terry Kinman - August 11, 2020 12:27 pm

    Speaking of weeds, what ever happened to dandelions? I always thought they looked beautiful covering a hillside or yards. When did we become obsessed with having a perfect lawn?
    I also believe there is no such thing as a weed.
    I read ten years ago bees were becoming endangered because of our use of pestasides especially Round Up.
    Since dandelions are such a great pollenator I bought some seeds to plant. I’m sure my neighbors are going to kill me.

  33. Joseph McDermott - August 11, 2020 5:15 pm

    I’d keep that on the down low. We actually had some dandelions in the yard this year, took me back to my childhood when they ran rampant in our yard.

  34. Beth McDonald, Toccoa, GA - August 12, 2020 10:12 pm

    WOW! All of this is the absolute truth.
    However, wisteria, Japanese or Chinese, both are wwwaaaayyyyy worse than kudzu ever had time to think about.
    Wisteria kills by winding left or right around is victim and chokes it. It grows just as fast as kudzu. It is a deadly, nasty, invasive “flower”.
    Kudzu just covers its victim over.
    Yep you guessed it……I hate wisteria.
    Thanks for letting me vent.

  35. Anne Trawick - August 13, 2020 2:37 pm

    A weed is but a flower whose virtues go unrecognized.

  36. Robert Chiles - August 14, 2020 12:06 pm

    Saw a bumper sticker a long time ago that said, “Kudzu Git You!”
    And it will!

  37. Will Mooty - September 10, 2020 1:23 am

    You didn’t mention the delicate aroma of its flowers. When I was a teenager I had a motorcycle trail that went through a kudzu field. Every time I get a whiff of a kudzu bloom now it takes me back to those days where I grew up.

  38. Toni - September 10, 2020 2:37 am

    I live in southern hemisphere. In our healthfood shops in this regional city I live in, and bigger cities I have lived in (Sydney) kudzu sometimes spelt kuzu was a quite popular nutritious (so the labels said) thickener for white sauces, you name it. And better than gelatine, as who really wants to eat horses hooves?

    I bought it in both senses of expression. But I really get it about
    invasive creeping vines as I worked as a volunteer member of groups that helped in bushland.


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