While riding anywhere around the county, one can’t help but notice there is an abundance of a nuisance vine called kudzu. It is so fast-growing and pervasive, it has been suggested in jest, that you should close your windows at night to keep it out of the house and just to be on the safe side, “make friends with it.”
Surprisingly enough, kudzu is not native to the United States. It was imported in 1865 from Japan, one of the countries invited to celebrate this nation’s 100th birthday during an exposition in Philadelphia. Noted for having beautiful gardens, the Japanese shaded their space with the unusual vine which had large leaves and a sweet-smelling, purple blossom. After the exposition, Americans began using the plant for ornamental purposes.
Cuttings were taken to the south where they flourished in the warm, humid climate. At first, kudzu provided shade and beauty as it quickly spiraled up trellises and climbed over porch roofs. At that time, it posed no threat.
Kudzu grows 12 inches a day, 60 feet a year, and individual plants send out tendrils 100 feet during a typical summer. The roots grow so far down into the ground that the plant is drought-resistant. Kudzu has a deep taproot which can eventually weigh as much as 400 pounds. Such a root system seemed perfect for preventing soil erosion. Oddly enough, right about 1930, during the Great Depression, hundreds of young men, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, were employed by the Soil Conservation Service to plant 85 million kudzu seedlings to do just that, prevent soil erosion. Of course, it did that, but in addition, it destroyed large forests because of its blanketing effect. It smothers trees and keeps them from getting sunlight.
There are over seven million acres of kudzu in the deep south alone. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s plenty of it in Harlan County, too. It covers whole mountainsides, climbs utility poles, and creeps onto the highways. It hangs down from overhead wires while its tendrils reach out and seemingly know no bounds.
I’m not offering any solution to the problem and it is a problem. I’m just noting that what initially began as a blessing has turned into a curse. The same government which lauded kudzu as a pretty flower and an erosion deterrent in 1876, has a hundred years later labeled it a menacing weed of out-of-control proportions.
There’s a Forestry Service joke which goes like this with regards to the fast-growing vine: “A farmer planted some kudzu in his back pasture and it beat him back to the house.” The “mile-a-minute” vine, which robs whole forests of sunlight and moisture, is no laughing matter. What at first appeared to be a beauty has turned out to be a beast — a beast of enormous ecological proportions.