In view of this year’s bodacious bumper crop of kudzu, it’s interesting to see how we got where we are.
Some jokingly blame Japan for introducing the vine to the United States as revenge for its World War II defeat. Actually kudzu originated in China, and Japan did bring it to the U.S., but way back in 1876. It really didn’t get a hold in the Southeast, where it grows best, until the 1930s and ’40s.
Channing Cope was a Georgia farmer who also wrote an Atlanta newspaper column and had an Atlanta radio show, both constantly promoting the planting of kudzu. He used his Newton County farm as an experiment station and convinced other farmers it was the "miracle vine" that would save the soil from rampant erosion, add nutrients to it and could be used for livestock feed.
As early as 1927, Cope had said kudzu would replace cotton as king on Southern farms. He organized the Kudzu Club in the 1940s, and it reached 20,000 members with a goal of planting a million acres in kudzu.
Russell Lord, editor of The Land magazine and well-known agricultural writer at the time, called Cope "the fellow who made Georgia the kudzu capital of the world." A Readers’ Digest article he wrote on Georgia’s kudzu crop resulted in 3,000 requests locally for information. When Lord visited the House of Commons in England, one of its members asked, "I say, do you suppose we could get some of this kudzu to come over here?"
At about the same time, Cason Callaway, founder of Callaway Gardens, designated several "Georgia Better Farms," including some around Tadmore, Chestnut Mountain and Candler in Hall County. These were to use the latest innovations to modernize agriculture in the state. Kudzu was one of the prime conservation experiments. Besides stopping erosion, it was even considered potential poultry fodder.
Everybody got caught up in the kudzu craze, including the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and county Extension Service agents. During one week, the SCS reported Hall County farmers had received more than 30,000 kudzu crowns, for which they could receive $8 an acre for planting.
Extension Services conducted "Stop-a-Gully" contests in schools, awarding prizes to those who planted the most kudzu.
A Clermont youth won the state’s "Stop-a-Gully" competition. Erosion was a problem on his family’s farm, and a soil conservation plan called for planting 2,200 kudzu crowns. It stopped the erosion and provided food for livestock. Kudzu worked so well the young farmer went on to spread manure over it, not realizing at the time the plant would gallop wildly over the landscape on its own without any help.
People got creative with kudzu, growing vines across the top of their front porches to shade them. It became known as "the front porch vine."
Soon it became too much of a good thing. Farmers couldn’t control its spread beyond their properties, and it became a nuisance to neighbors. It swallowed up barns, crowded crops and gobbled up gardens, abandoned houses, utility poles and trees.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported by the mid-1940s kudzu was covering 120,000 acres a year. It could grow a foot a day or 60 feet during a season. By the 1950s, kudzu, which had been touted as the miracle crop, instead was proclaimed a pest. One county in Florida fined property owners who couldn’t control their kudzu.
While kudzu fell out of favor with many, Channing Cope still promoted it even until his death in 1962.
Kudzu in modern times is just another thing global warming gets the blame for. The plant thrives in droughts and mild winters, which North Georgia has experienced the last few years.
Despite its disadvantages, kudzu still has some benefits. It hides junk cars and covers other eyesores. Jelly is made from its blossoms and wreaths, baskets and other crafts from its dried vines. Tea, medicine and even some food come from kudzu. It provides fodder for jokes and entertainment for those guessing what shapes the towering vines have made along roadsides.
Because herbicides don’t bother kudzu, entrepreneurs still look for new uses for the vine, which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere but up more trees and hillsides.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.