The amazing story of kudzu
It's a way to pass the time on steamy, languid summer days: Taking pictures of the kudzu, demon vine, foot-a-day vine, the vine that ate the south. Seven million acres swallowed whole, taking in another hundred thousand every year.
Our game is guessing what's beneath the leaves. A house? A barn? A nest of snakes?
Usually nothing more. Abandoned shacks. Leftover shanties. Empty homes, or homes taken by the vines.
My brother wonders who it was that built the houses. Me? I wonder where they've gone.
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Kudzu on trees in Atlanta, Georgia.
The kudzu monster of Lumpkin
When I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Lumpkin, a village in southwestern Georgia, just a few minutes from Alabama, a town that still slumbered in the Great Depression even as the rest of the country celebrated the American Dream with new houses and ice-making refrigerators and color television, I would lie awake at night, my six-year-old ears peeled, my eyes wide open in terror, listening to the whispers and creaks of the ancient house, my mother having long since turned out the light to make me go to sleep, and no reading light available to me in that far corner of the earth.
They say you'd best lock your windows at night to keep the kudzu out.
I had heard about "the vine that ate the south," which grows as much as a foot a day in the hot, humid southern climate. During those long, lonely nights, with every scratch that I heard, every snap, every rustle, I imagined that outside my window, scraping at the window frame, seeking a way inside, its tendrils slithering underneath the window sash, was the hairy green kudzu monster that ate the south.
But when the window opened, I peeked out over the edge of the sheet, which I had pulled up to my face, and saw that it wasn't the kudzu monster coming inside. It was my older brother, bravely fighting off the kudzu outside my window. It was only then that I could sleep, knowing that with my hero protecting me from the hairy green monster, the kudzu would never find its way inside that little house.
It was only when I was an adult that I learned my teen-age brother hadn't been outside fighting off the kudzu. He had been climbing inside, trying not to wake my parents after his nightly search through that little town looking for something to drink. Or smoke.
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What is kudzu?
Or, the birth of the kudzu monster
It was a good-will gesture in 1876, when delegations from thirty-seven nations showed off their cultures at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia celebrating our country's one hundredth birthday and our emergence as a world power. The Japanese built a koi pond and tea garden and filled it with plants from their native islands, including a wild pea vine, the root of which had been used by traditional oriental medicine for centuries as a treatment for cold, flu, diarrhea, neck stiffness, and perhaps most significant to the fairgoers, as a cure for hangovers. The Americans, enthralled by the vines' large leaves and sweet-smelling purple flowers that bloomed in late summer, took home sprigs to plant in their backyards.
They say that on a hot, languid summer day, when you hear a rustle, it's the kudzu growing.
During the Great Depression, because the Japanese pea vine grew so rapidly in the hot, humid climate of the south, the Soil Conservation Service promoted it for erosion control on the Georgia red clay hillsides and at the depleted mines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No one foresaw that the vine known as kudzu would love the southern climate so much that it would grow as much as a foot a day in the hottest part of the summer, encroaching far beyond the roadsides, climbing nearby trees and choking out their light, smothering the pines in a cloak of darkness and death, until it covered entire forests and telephone poles and barns and houses, the only visible clue as to what lay underneath the blanket of kudzu being the green leafy roof shapes and chimney forms, like redneck topiaries.
Today more than seven million acres of the southeast lie beneath the kudzu vines, larger than the entire state of Maryland, earning kudzu the name "the vine that ate the South." They say that on a quiet day, when you hear a rustle, it's the kudzu growing; and you'd better lock your windows at night to keep it out.
Photo: Newberry County, South Carolina. CCC enrollees planting kudzu on C. C. Spoon's farm, Newberry County, South Carolina. 200,000 seedlings were planted by CCC enrollees in this county this year 1941. These seedlings were planted on 400 acres representing 100 different farms. Photo credit National Archives and Records Administration
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Kudzu air pollution
How kudzu puts the blue in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Did you know that kudzu makes the Blue Ridge Mountains bluer?
The flora of the mountains releases airborne isoprene, a chemical that scatters the light waves, enhancing the shorter wavelengths. Since blue wavelengths are the shortest, this causes a blue haze over the mountains, each ridge back appearing more blue than the ridge in front of it.
Kudzu releases isoprene and nitric oxide, which combines with nitrogen in the air to form surface ozone, an air pollutant that causes health problems in humans and can deter plant growth. Kudzu ozone (kudzone?) "leads to about a 50 percent increase in the number of days each year in which ozone levels exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency deems as unhealthy," said a University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences and biology, co-author of a study on kudzu's effect on ozone production.
So not only does it make the mountains blue. It also makes people feel blue.