BY CASEY LANCE BROWN
Every blue moon or so, fears of the dreaded “Kudzilla” arise anew in the purportedly eco-aware populace. Inevitably, each episodic spasm invokes fears that the plant will somehow exceed the biological limits of growth. According to this apocalyptic vision, the semiwoody vine becomes a biohazard, uniting “exponential spread” and visual “blight” to destroy the allegedly “pure” existing ecosystem.
Three dissenting facts, if reported more widely, could easily dispel these fearmongering episodes about the plant scientifically known as Pueraria montana var. lobata. First, kudzu’s acreage has been vastly exaggerated. Even some of the U.S. Forest Service’s own scientists say it’s most likely declining in the southern U.S. and is far less of a threat than some other invasive species. Second, kudzu generally doesn’t tolerate shade well and will not penetrate an intact forest, which is the Southeast’s dominant landscape. Third, kudzu propagates vegetatively (through rooted crown nodes on runners) and rarely produces viable seeds in this region.
Collectively, these botanical characteristics constrain the footprint of kudzu in Southern Appalachia to already disturbed areas. So much for exponential spread.
Pattern recognition goes a long way toward understanding the hows and whys of kudzu patches in our area. The most relevant pattern is connected to transportation infrastructure. The travel corridors that first opened the region to development focused on rivers, valleys and the lowest-lying gaps that allowed passage to the next river valley. Old railroad corridors, early turnpike roads and the first set of state roadways all concentrated near the primary rivers and mountain gaps.
To a striking degree, you can follow those initial infrastructural corridors, where most early development/ecological disturbance occurred, and see a sinuous gallery of kudzu. And because Western North Carolina’s newer interstates and roads still tend to align with those corridors, kudzu can be overrepresented in travelers’ perceptions.
From ecology to mythology (and back)
Here’s an assignment for dedicated readers: Don’t worry, it’s a lazy, landscape-gawking kind of exercise that may be best done during summer’s growth season — and particularly in August, when the plant’s flowers emit a sensuous, grapey scent. In winter, kudzu dies back mostly to its roots.
Begin your adventure with a breezy hike along the Point Lookout Trail from Old Fort to Ridgecrest, following the Old N.C. 10/U.S. 70 route through Pisgah National Forest. Next, travel to Swannanoa River Road along the railyard near the Swannanoa/French Broad confluence, follow U.S. 19/23 to Canton and Waynesville (the Old Asheville Highway), through Balsam Gap on Old 19/23 to Sylva and Bryson City.
Do you recognize the pattern? You have just traveled the corridor used by practically every settler, outlander and industrialist to access the area over the last 200-plus years. And if you trace the route of the Old Buncombe Turnpike, following the French Broad River north toward Marshall and Hot Springs, you’ll see something similar.
Along the steep mountainsides and road cuts, where maintenance is difficult, those roadways consistently host patches of kudzu. By the 1930s, these well-trodden corridors would have been relatively barren, with only the scrubbiest of weeds remaining after a century of logging and extractive row cropping. The lack of ground cover, coupled with steep slopes, made the land prone to sheet erosion. Indeed, erosion emerged as a major threat both to local industry and to those New Deal agencies tasked with managing the region’s farmed-out soils and periodic flooding.
The messianic drive to slow soil loss and put Americans to work mobilized a complex of government entities to plant kudzu seedlings far and wide. These so-called “alphabet agencies” included the Tennessee Valley Authority, U.S. Forest Service, Soil Conservation Service, state highway departments and, before World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Thus, it comes as no surprise that road cuts, orphan strips, rights of way, dam edges, riversides and CCC camp locales teem with kudzu plantings. By the logic of the time, kudzu was fancy biotech. A semidomesticated legume, it enriched the soil with nitrogen, was selectively bred to grow well in depleted areas and exhibited a crawling growth pattern that rapidly protected soil from erosion and desiccation.
Coming on the heels of the disastrous environmental conditions during the Great Depression, the decision to plant kudzu was rational and even environmentally sound. And the much-maligned vine has occupied that exact niche — a relatively uninviting ecological zone of crappy roadside, steep embankment and/or eroded gully — ever since the New Deal agents purposefully planted it nearly a century ago. But if the plant were indeed capable of monstrous, uncontrolled spread, it would by now have a much larger extent than it does. Instead, what we see are remnants of previous environmental manipulation that dot the edges of areas disturbed by development. Most visible kudzu patches trace a historical landscape treatment that was entirely intentional and an attempt to address significant environmental concerns.
A practical approach
Despite kudzu’s monstrous reputation, it can be used as food, fiber and perhaps even pharmacologically. In fact, the 19th-century writer Okura Nagatsune cleverly classified kudzu as “a useful thing … in useless places.” This leguminous vine from the pea family has a long history of sustaining and clothing populations in China and Japan during tough times. It’s no wonder that the plant thrives in Appalachia, given the parallels in terms of latitude and humid, mountainous terrain.
Kudzu has traveled so long with human populations, it likely qualifies as a “cryptocrop.” No, this is not some harebrained scheme to grow organic hemp cryptocurrency. The term refers to the behavior of a plant selectively bred as an early food crop that thus seems to “crop up” near human-disturbed landscapes. Hence, the remnant kudzu patches around the mountains are merely the latest stage of a lengthy ethnobotanical and agropastoral coevolution.
Kudzu Culture, a local nonprofit, has strategically joined this mutualism with kudzu. These crafty foragers have cultivated a suite of consumables and cultural production based on the plant’s leafage, fibrous vines and starchy roots. By harvesting local resources, they aim to inaugurate a regenerative, circular economy where a freely available weed can be harvested and put to use in both the local and global economies. They have received some interest from Japan about providing high-quality mountain kudzu roots for the Japanese culinary industry. By mixing mountain harvesting, ethnobotanical reuse and traditional knowledge, Kudzu Culture is pioneering a truly “Jappalachian” approach (learn more at kudzuculture.net).
Lastly, if you want a nonpolluting way to manage the obstinate vine, ruminant animals will voraciously consume your backyard cryptocrop. The city of Asheville occasionally contracts with local goat ranchers to eat patches down. Repeated animal or mechanical removals over several years exhaust kudzu’s root reserves, and the plant will die. So, it turns out that the vine is much easier to exhaust than the invasive sociobiological myths that still surround it.
Haywood County resident Casey Lance Brown is a landscape futures consultant who visualizes environmental scenarios such as deextinction, post-mine reclamation and autonomous driving.