Kudzu (Pueraria lobata; formerly P. thunbergiana) is a prolific weedy vine and botanical newcomerthat has covered millions of acres in Georgia and the Southeast. It has also made its way into southern folklore and culture. Cultivated in Japan for centuries, kudzu first appeared in the United States in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition's Japanese Pavilion. It was introduced to southerners at the New Orleans (Louisiana) Exposition in 1884-86. Because of its luxuriant and rapid growth, broad and layered leaves, and wisteria-like purple or magenta flowers, it soon gained popularity as a shade plant and became known as the "porch vine."
By the early 1930s some agricultural experts had come to believe in the virtues of protein-rich kudzu as a forage plant that could be grown on poor soils and began to advocate its production to farmers. In 1930-31, during the Great Depression, Georgia experienced the worst drought in its history. The condition of the state's soil, already depleted by poor agricultural practices, worsened. In 1935 the newly formed Soil Conservation Service decided to tout kudzu for erosion control and began producing seedlings in Soil Conservation Service nurseries in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. The number of acres given over to the plant grew rapidly in these states. Between 1935 and 1942 Soil Conservation Service nurseries grew a hundred million kudzu seedlings. They were shipped throughout the Southeast and distributed to farmers, who used the vine on rilled and gullied croplands, and to railroads and highway departments that planted the seedlings along exposed rights-of-way.
By the mid-1940s kudzu had gained other champions. Channing Cope, a columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, grew kudzu for forage on his Yellow River farm southeast of Atlanta. Cope organized the Kudzu Club of America, whose members planted the vine wherever they could. Both the Soil Conservation Service and the Kudzu Club were wildly successful. By 1945 about a half million acres in the South were planted in kudzu.
But the virtue that the vine's promoters praised most highly, its vigor and rapid rate of growth, soon revealed itself a virtue in excess. By the 1950s foresters and highway engineers were complaining that wherever it was planted, the vine grew upward or outward—at the rate of sixty to a hundred feet a season. It engulfed and smothered pine trees, and established dense mats several feet thick along the sunny sides of roads. Both farmers and urban gardeners living adjacent to naturalized banks or empty lots cursed the vine's invasiveness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture removed kudzu from its list of acceptable cover crops for its Agricultural Conservation Program in the 1950s, and in 1972 it demoted the plant to weed status. By 1993 a study by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment claimed that kudzu accounted for about $50 million annually in lost farm and timber production.
In the meantime the "plant that ate the South" has made its way into southern folklore and humor. "If you're going to plant kudzu, drop it and run," or "Plant it at night so that your neighbors don't see you," goes the lore. Visitors are told about hitchhikers on kudzu-lined country roads who have disappeared without a trace. They are advised to keep their car windows up while driving down the same roads, lest the rapidly growing vine reach in and grab the wheel. Some southerners have taken this prolific "hee-haw" and dressed it up chic: In Atlanta representations of kudzu have graced brown-paper shopping bags from the upscale shopping mall Lenox Square and provided the motif for the former Kudzu Kafe, a high-end, home-cooking restaurant in Buckhead. Poets (most notably, James Dickey, in "Kudzu") and novelists have also embraced the plant and imagined it a primal force of the South. For many, kudzu has become an invasive weed, but the culture of the region is all the richer for it.