The Trouble With Kudzu
Dothan Alabama - Traveling through the southeast tourists often wonder what the leafy vine is they see growing up telephone poles, over fences and snaking through roadside tree stands. Well as everyone in the south is well aware, that vine is kudzu. A pesky plant that invades property, takes over barns and has been described as "the worst idea the government every pushed on us."
Kudzu is native to Japan and China and was first seen in the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Soon there after it was being used by some home owners as a decorative porch vine. By the turn of the century a man named C. E. Pleas of Chipley Florida was instrumental in pushing the plant as a cheap forage for livestock. In the 30's the U S government gave out 85 million kudzu seedlings to southern land owners in an attempt to stop erosion caused by poor soil conservation techniques and cotton farming. They went so far as to offer farmers $8 for every acre of kudzu they planted. In the 40's kudzu festivals were being held in many small southern towns complete with a "kudzu queen" being crowned. At this time the Kudzu Club of America had over 20,000 members. But by the 50's kudzu was being recognized as a pest. It was growing over it's boundaries, swallowing up land needed for other uses and costing farmers and towns large sums of money to control. Because each vine from a planting can grow over 60 feet in one season (a foot a day in early summer) and it's roots sometimes stretch over 12 feet into the ground, it proved to be a formidable enemy to pesticide. By the 70s the vine was listed by the USDA as a common weed.
Chipley Florida proudly flaunts their Kudzu heritage
But some southerners say that the vine itself isn't the worst part of kudzu. The worst part is what lives in the vines.
"We called them kudzu monkey's when we were growing up," Robin Deere told me. "If me and my brother got into trouble my mom would always say she was going to throw us into the kudzu patch and let the kudzu monkeys get us. I never saw one but my brother said he did. He was out on our porch one day when he was 12 or 13 and said he saw this brown animal come out from the patch across the road from our house. It looked just like a monkey you would see on TV except it had real sharp teeth. Joe (his brother) watched it and swore that it dug little holes in the ground, put something inside them and covered them up. Then it climbed back into the vines and disappeared. After my brother told me about it I went across the road with him and he showed me the little covered up holes. I dug one up and found 2 or 3 little seeds in there. I think that's how the stuff grows so fast, the kudzu monkeys plant it when no one is looking."
When Kudzu Monkeys Go Bad
I interviewed Robin in a restaurant and as he finished his story another man who had overheard us, interrupted.
"Oh yeah, kudzu monkeys are real," said David Rogers of Graceville, Florida. "When I was a kid my Dad worked for the Florida Department of Transportation. He came home one day with a cut on his leg. When Mom asked him what it was he said that he had been cutting back kudzu on the side of the highway and a kudzu monkey had attacked him. Bit clean through his dungarees and straight into the skin. I won't go near the stuff"
interview with Robin Deere, June 7th, 1998
interview with David Rogers, June 7th, 1998
"A History of Alabama" editor Robert Fargen, Sawyer Press, 1989
"The Kudzu Vine" article in the Dothan Alabama Public Library bulletin board, no author given.
Illustration by Derek Barnes