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Kudzu: We’ve made a big mistake

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Kudzu, an ornamental vine from Japan, first appeared on US soil in 1876. More than a century later, the plant has proliferated so uncontrollably that it threatens to choke out native plants in the American South. As the world looks for creative solutions to confront climate change, are we fated to keep repeating our same mistakes?

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Featuring

Kira Bindrim is the host of the Quartz Obsession podcast. She is an executive editor who works on global newsroom coverage and email products. She is obsessed with reality TV.

Susan Howson is the email editor in charge of the Quartz Daily Brief, the Quartz Weekly Obsession, qz.com, and the Quartz app. She is obsessed with really good children’s literature and making ice cream.


Show notes

James Dickey’s 1963 poem, Kudzu

Kudzu references in the work of: Johnny Cash, REM, Chuck Palahniuk, and Margaret Atwood

Study on kudzu extract’s effect on binge drinking

This episode uses the following sounds from freesound.org and SoundCloud:
Trip Beat by Craig Shank
Birds In Spring (Scotland) by BurghRecords
highway ambience by PrrLl
Rustling foliage.WAV by DDT197
vine stretch 5.wav by Halleck


Transcript

Kira Bindrim: In May 1963, the American writer James Dickey published a poem in the New Yorker about a leafy green vine known as kudzu. This was about 60 years after kudzu first found its way to the US from Japan, and 30 years after the American government got so excited about the vine’s potential, that it actually paid farmers to plant it. In fact, by the time Dickey’s poem was published, the government was realizing it might have made a big mistake.

Here’s a little piece of that poem:

Far Eastern vines run from the clay banks they are

Supposed to keep from eroding,

Up telephone poles,

Which rear, half out of leafage,

As though they would shriek,

Like things smothered by their own

Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.

Nine years after this poem, the US will officially declare kudzu a weed. But at that point, it’s too late—millions of acres are covered in what’s known as the vine that ate the South.

Kudzu becomes an icon in southern culture, and is frequently used as a metaphor for unchecked growth. In 1973, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote that “racism is like the local creeping kudzu vine that swallows whole forests and abandoned houses; if you don’t keep pulling up the roots, it will grow back faster than you can destroy it.” Kudzu also shows up in the works of Johnny Cash, REM, Chuck Palahniuk, and Margaret Atwood, just to name a few.

Even today, we’re still feeling the consequences of kudzu. Because climate change brings warmth and humidity to more US states, the vine is finding new places to settle down, and new ecosystems to disrupt. More than 150 years after kudzu was brought to America, the country is still trying to disentangle itself.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: kudzu, and what happens when you invite an invasive species home.

I am joined now by Susan Howson, who is the email editor here at Quartz and who actually edits the quartz Obsession email. Susan is based in Virginia. How is Richmond today? Susan?

Susan Howson: It’s very pleasant, very temperate.

Kira Bindrim: When did you first learn about this vine called kudzu? How do people around your area kind of talk about it?

Susan Howson: Well, I was trying to remember, you know, a first memory and it just sort of felt like it’s always been there. The only way I can remember seeing it as a child is from the window of a car. I think, you know, as kids do, you just sort of accept it as part of the landscape. And I think at some point, probably one of my parents pointed it out in the car and said, ‘Oh, that’s kudzu. It’s something that was brought over to America from Japan, semi-innocently. And now it’s just covering everything and cannot be stopped.’

Kira Bindrim: If I like asked the average person in Richmond to describe kudzu to me or just said the word kudzu to them, what is the reaction? What is the sentiment about this vine there?

Susan Howson: They sort of chuckle and they say, ‘Oh yes, I know all about kudzu.’ Because we see it everywhere, especially when you get out of the city. It’s just crawling all over everything. It appears to be this blanket of leaves. And especially the farther south you get—you know, if you go on a trip down 95 or 85, down to the Carolinas and, you know, even farther down, it’s just massive, a massive presence everywhere.

Kira Bindrim: Now, I cannot overstate how little of a plant person I am. Like, the only plants in my apartment are plastic and I have never kept a plant alive in my entire life. So with that prefaced, let’s go over some of the real basics about kudzu. Describe it to me—what does it look like? And what is it known for?

Susan Howson: Well, if you want to get into a plant that is difficult to kill, this would be your plant. It’s kind of a beautiful green leaf. It has these little purple flowers that you don’t often see because the flowers lie under the leaves. And it’s just this pleasant ground cover slash everything cover. And it also, apparently, though I have never really gotten close enough to smell I can’t think of a time, but it also apparently has this nice grape-like smell.

Kira Bindrim: What is it used for?

Susan Howson: Well, it was originally used as a food source in Japan and as a source for fibers for textiles. Now, it is used for mostly complaining about as far as I can tell. But it can be used ,and people do use it, as an edible green. Its leaves are said to be faintly spinach-like, the blossoms themselves can be used to flavor syrups and jellies. And then you can also grind the roots just like the ancient way into a starchy substance.

Kira Bindrim: So let’s talk a little bit about kudzu’s journey into the US. And if I understand this, right, it’s kind of like a three-act play, right? Like, we meet kudzu and act one, we fall in love and act two, and then we have a major falling out in act three.

Susan Howson: Right? It’s like any relationship.

Kira Bindrim: Yes, it’s a true, a true trajectory; a marriage story, but about kudzu. Okay, so tell me about the first act. When does kudzu show up in the US?

Susan Howson: Okay, so there’s this horticulturalist named Thomas Hogg. And he brought it over to the US in the 1860s. His brother was in New York, I believe, and had a nursery. And he brought it over from Japan as an exotic plant to sell to people that he thought would make a nice plant in their garden or a ground cover or a front porch kind of trailing vine, which was very popular, especially back then. It didn’t really go a lot of places back then, it kind of was just the novelty. In Philadelphia on the centennial in 1876. And envoy from Japan planted it in a park as a sort of congratulatory, ‘You’ve made it to 100 years, you know, here’s a plant that we really like.’ But then a farmer in Florida named C. E. Pleas figures out that, after he planted it for a while, it makes a great forage crop for livestock. So he started to popularize it as this great crop that you could plant, and your goats and your livestock can eat it.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, so at this point, it’s starting to show up in almost like a novelty way—it’s showing up on people’s porches and in decorative settings, not really because of any utility, but because it’s interesting and it looks nice, and it sounds like we were just very casually bringing plants from different countries. At what point does does kudzu become part of US agricultural policy?

Susan Howson: Sure, like, I don’t even think, I mean, I wasn’t alive back then, but I don’t even think it had gotten to like the trend level of, say, succulents, or something like that—it was just like sort of, this is a plant that exists and some people like it. Then, in the 1930s, there was a big problem that had been growing for, you know, decades, if not centuries, of over planting cotton in the soil, which really depletes the soil’s nutrients, most of all nitrogen. And the US government identified kudzu as a plant that you could sort of sow and establish in your fields that would help keep the ground together with all of its root system, and also put nitrogen back into the soil.

Kira Bindrim: So it was a solve for a very large problem at the time.

Susan Howson: Yeah, it was a huge problem, and it was really ruining the economy. And this was seen as this miracle plant that was just going to solve everything. So Congress started paying farmers to plant it. The figure you can most find is that they can make up to $8 an acre, which, back in the 30s was, that was, you know, a lot of cheddar. So it became popularized. There was also a man named Channing Cope, who one could call the king of kudzu. Certainly kudzu’s number one hype man. He had an agricultural radio show, he was a journalist near Atlanta. It was called “the front porch farmer.” And he just loved it. He just thought this is gonna be the thing that saves us. And he basically preached, proselytized about kudzu, and even started the Kudzu Club of America in 1943, which, from everything I could find boasts that upwards of 20,000 members, which is pretty wild.

Kira Bindrim: I love the mental image of the hype man of kudzu. I’m picturing like air horns like boop boop boop kuzdu.

Susan Howson: There are like pictures of him just kind of surrounded by happy children as he’s sort of just spreading the good gospel of this vine.

[recording of Channing Cope: “If it hadn’t been for kudzu the miracle vine, all my land would have washed away. They used to say cotton is king in the South, but I say cotton isn’t king anymore—kudzu is king.]

Kira Bindrim: So how does this big kudzu experiment go, at least at first?

Susan Howson: At first, it goes great. You know, people are like, ‘Yes, I will take these seedlings, and I will plant them in my crop.’ And it worked as designed—it holds these gullies and hillsides together, and it starts making the soil better. It does this thing called nitrogen fixing, where it helps bring nitrogen into the soil. And it’s also very pretty. So people are very happy with it at first. Eventually, they start to notice that it is starting to cover everything. I mean, this vine can scale like nobody’s business, it’s like a startup. It’s covering all this farmland, and there’s a lot of concern that it’s taking over the actual crops that people want to grow. There’s also not a lot of money to be made from it. So Congress is not really seeing a lot of good on their investment, you know—yes, it’s fixing some soil, and it’s helping keep the landscape together, but it’s not really turning into the profit that they thought. So the government stops paying farmers to plant it in 1945. By 1953, it’s covered actual things we need, like railroad tracks, telephone poles, utility poles. And it’s not really clear from looking at it whether it was actually covering these things and doing a lot of damage. There was a lot of concern that it was going to gum up railroad tracks and cause trains to derail. I don’t think the great kudzu train derailment ever happened, but there’s a lot of concern about that. So the US took it off its recommended ground cover list. And then by 1972, it’s gotten so out of hand that they declare it to be a common weed. By 1992, it’s covering 7 million acres, by some estimates.

Kira Bindrim: It’s kind of like a monkey’s paw thing, where you wish for a solution to soil erosion, you get a solution to soil erosion that’s very effective at doing that. But then you get all of these unintended things that you did not wish for.

So is this the point at which kudzu starts being considered what we call an invasive species? And also what is that? Like, what is the definition of an invasive species?

Susan Howson: Okay, so an invasive species has to be a non-native species. And the way they define it in the US is: something that was not here before Europeans also started taking root—their own invasive species, one could say. And most of the definition of invasive species is about the scalability of it. So it’s very fast, it’s very hardy, it can establish itself wherever and spread to the point of disrupting whole ecosystems. Many things you could find about kudzu call it the poster child of invasive species. So it’s the one true metaphor, the cautionary tale of what happens when you bring a non-native species to a place where it has no native predators and the conditions are great for it to just take root and go nuts.

Kira Bindrim: I guess because it’s also so visible, you know—there’s such like a tangible spread of it that makes it such a good poster child.

Susan Howson: Right. And a lot of people say, too, that the only reason it is the poster child is not necessarily because it’s doing more damage, or even covering more ground than a lot of other invasive species. It’s that it loves light and it’s pretty easily tamed by animals. And the places where there’s a lot of light and not a lot of animals are by the sides of highways. So we just see it a lot.

Kira Bindrim: It sounds like this is also the point at which kudzu is, is basically developing its reputation for today, which is as an invasive species. How would you say—like, I gave some examples at the top of where it starts to appear in literature and in poetry—how would you say kudzu fits into the culture of the South?

Susan Howson: Yeah, so I’m sure farmers who are battling this would disagree with me, but it kind of fits into this weird spot of ‘It’s an invasive species, but it’s our invasive species.’ Like if you can’t beat them, join them. There’s a weird pride about it, I think at the very least an acceptance that it’s part of the landscape. Like, there are cafes and periodicals named after it. And in the same way that a Southern-themed restaurant would be named magnolia or something else, it’s become this symbol that helps set a scene, just like cicadas or peaches or magnolias or whatnot. So it’s just become this sort of vague threat that we’ve embraced as this weird symbol.

Kira Bindrim: I’m trying to think of the New York equivalent of something that’s like a menace, but that we take for granted…

Susan Howson: Oh, rats.

Kira Bindrim: Mmm, we don’t like them. I was gonna say pigeons. Like it’s kind of like a symbol of the city. But we’re not thrilled with them. We don’t trust ’em.

Susan Howson: Yes, pigeons. Yeah, you understand that they’re not your favorite things, but they’re just always gonna be there.

Kira Bindrim: After the break, what we can learn from the kudzu mistake.

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: So if I had to put a theme on what we’ve been talking about so far, it sounds kind of like it’s unintended consequences. Like we have these almost quaint societies at the beginning of the 20th century that are bringing in plants from other countries, which is, in hindsight, not the best idea. But we’re interested in biodiversity. And then we have the US government in the 30s looking at one of these species and making it a solution without a ton of forethought. Would you say on balance that kudzu has been good or bad for US ecosystems and the economy?

Susan Howson: Well, it was good for a while, and it did what it was supposed to do. There’s some murkiness around whether it’s actually causing problems for farmers and the extent of that problem, but the real concern now is that it’s actually a plant that’s pretty bad for the environment as far as carbon emissions goes. You think of plants as being carbon sinks, but this one actually, because of the very ways in which it grows so fast, it’s putting a lot of roots down into the soil, it is helping put nitrogen into the soil, but it also disturbs the soil a bunch, and a lot of carbon is contained within soil. So because it spreads so fast, it emits a ton of carbon, or causes soil to emit a ton of carbon. So it’s throwing a bunch of carbon into the atmosphere, which is not great.

Kira Bindrim: So in the interest of addressing soil erosion, we chose a plant that actually does the opposite of what most plants do when it comes to air pollution?

Susan Howson: Correct. It stops soil erosion, but it is destroying the atmosphere as we know it.

Kira Bindrim: And then if we spin that forward, now we’re in a place where climate change is changing the temperature parameters of different environments. And so because this plant thrives in warm, humid climates, there are all these new states in the US that are suddenly becoming, at least for part of the year, warm, humid climates, that kudzu is like, ‘Now like I could, I could do well over there.’

Susan Howson: Yeah, it’s a whole vicious cycle. It creates the warm, humid climates by throwing more carbon into the atmosphere, and also loves the warm, humid climates. So you know, it’s hard to look at this plant that, like I said, looks very pretty—it’s hard not to think of it as this kind of bad actor who is coming in and just doing what it wants for its own benefit. But like, that’s also what plants do, you know, if they can.

Kira Bindrim: What do you ultimately take away from this? Because this wasn’t just people putting non-native plants on their front porch, or one person or one individual action bringing this species into the US—this was government policy effectively gone wrong. What do you think are the lessons here?

Susan Howson: Well, it’s similar to the lessons around geoengineering, which, if you’re not familiar with that, are like, huge projects and initiatives that are trying to counteract very big environmental problems, like putting sun shields in space, or making huge machines that pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which, you know, at first blush are good, helpful things to do. But critics will say, and this why there’s controversy over them, is that they don’t actually root out the causes that have made the sunshields necessary. For instance, like, are we doing this just so that we can use more fossil fuels? Is this just a bandaid? The other reason it’s controversial is that they cause more problems sometimes, exactly like we’ve seen with kudzu. So in that sense, just like geoengineering projects, there’s a sense of future thinking to a point, but not future thinking enough.

And so my, my takeaway, personally, from doing all this research, is that you can view it as a cautionary tale. And you can think, you know, we really need to make sure that we need to think through how this is going to work for not just the next generation, but all the generations after that, and how it’s going to affect our ecosystem. But it also brings to mind this feeling of, humans can actually make change. Like we don’t have to look at, you know, these terrifying reports about climate change and think, ‘Well, that’s it,’ and kind of throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, it’s all happening anyway, so I might as well crank my air conditioner up full blast and run it a year long.’ There are things that we can do—we have been able to stop the spread of kudzu to a certain extent, it does work. We can think about how to make things better, given the problems that we have, without wasting a lot of time blaming past generations for their mistakes. People are going to make mistakes. This was a mistake in a lot of ways. But it is deal-with-able.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, I think to me, it makes me think about how much we love novel solutions versus systemic ones, which is kind of what you’re saying. And then, singular solutions, this is really something I feel like we’ve learned in the course of the pandemic. But for kudzu, it’s if I think about that time period, you know, the US is starting to lose interest in kudzu around the same time as US farmers are getting interested in nitrogen fertilizer, which accomplishes a lot of things that couldn’t be accomplished before, but we know now, in hindsight, is not the best thing for the environment, either. And it’s like the lesson still wasn’t crop rotation, or the things that you should do to just make your soil better. It was like, what is the quick fix. And that’s the part of human nature that makes me kind of nervous—not that we can’t develop solutions, but that we tend to be myopic. Like it took the US 40 years to reverse its position on kudzu, and that is a mistake. But we might not always have the time to be like, ‘Oops, never mind,’ or the stakes might be much higher next time. So there is something between fatalism, which I agree is not useful, but also like moving too fast in the interest of having a quick fix or a singular fix.

Susan Howson: So that same myopic view is important to think about with the problem is itself, too. Like everybody knew that cotton was bad for the soil, and that you had to rotate crops to keep things going well. But there was, you know, all this demand and all this population growth and this insatiable need for more and more, and we can see this now with the supply chain crisis, right? Like, there have been cracks in it for a long time. And there’s just this pressure to produce and produce and produce. So by the time you know, the 30s happened, the Dust Bowl happened, it was too far gone to really revive with anything that wasn’t this huge, you know, kudzu blanket solution. We sort of get ourselves into these corners where we have to put in these ill-considered solutions instead of kind of keeping ourselves in check.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, this sounds exactly like climate change. Like we are just barreling towards a point where dramatic mitigative—is mitigative a word?—mitigating solutions are going to be the only thing we can do, but then doing those, we’re probably going to create new problems. Not that I’m fatalistic, I’m optimistic, but we do have a tendency to fall into this trap as humans.

Susan Howson: Yeah.

Kira Bindrim: One more question for you: What is your favorite kudzu fun fact?

Susan Howson: Okay, so here’s an interesting thing that it looked like was folklore ,or at least like kind of old wives tale or at best anecdotal, that says that a brew made from its leaves or an extract can help with alcoholism. In a sense of, it does something to the brain that, when you are already drinking, it makes you feel like, ‘Well, I had enough, end of my night.’ It’s really interesting. So there’s actual scientific studies about how it really does help curb binge drinking.

Kira Bindrim: Just like a bad boyfriend.

Susan Howson: Just like a bad—uh, does that, I don’t, I think your analogy falls apart there.

Kira Bindrim: We’ve had enough. It’s time to go home.

Susan Howson: Yeah. Sure.

Kira Bindrim: Thank you so much. This was a fascinating conversation.

Susan Howson: You’re very welcome. I’m off to go traipse around some kudzu.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake, and the theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Susan Howson in Virginia and Alex Ossola in New York.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Go ahead and plant that seed with them now. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.

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