In college, I had a professor who declared that every true work of Southern literature mentioned a dead mule. He was being facetious, of course, but he was not wrong—there are certain images that pervade regional literature over and over again, serving as signifiers or metaphors. Kudzu is one of those images. If you’ve never come across kudzu before, whether through literature or geography, it’s a plant. Specifically, it’s “a quick-growing eastern Asian climbing plant with reddish-purple flowers, used as a fodder crop and for erosion control.” And: “It has become a pest in the southeastern US.” (Thanks, Google Definitions.)
At Smithsonian Magazine, botanist Bill Finch slices through the mythos surrounding this meandering vine and its political and economic roots.
I’m not sure when I first began to doubt. Perhaps it was while I watched horses and cows mowing fields of kudzu down to brown stubs. As a botanist and horticulturist, I couldn’t help but wonder why people thought kudzu was a unique threat when so many other vines grow just as fast in the warm, wet climate of the South…
Still, along Southern roads, the blankets of untouched kudzu create famous spectacles. Bored children traveling rural highways insist their parents wake them when they near the green kudzu monsters stalking the roadside. “If you based it on what you saw on the road, you’d say, dang, this is everywhere,” said Nancy Loewenstein, an invasive plants specialist with Auburn University. Though “not terribly worried” about the threat of kudzu, Loewenstein calls it “a good poster child” for the impact of invasive species precisely because it has been so visible to so many.
It was an invasive that grew best in the landscape modern Southerners were most familiar with—the roadsides framed in their car windows. It was conspicuous even at 65 miles per hour, reducing complex and indecipherable landscape details to one seemingly coherent mass. And because it looked as if it covered everything in sight, few people realized that the vine often fizzled out just behind that roadside screen of green.