Thursday, September 11, 2008

"In Georgia, the legend says ...

The May River toward Palmetto Bluff

That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house."

from “Kudzu” by James Dickey

I’ve learned a lot about gardening from my patient friend Judy. She’s introduced me to dozens of interesting plants. She taught me about how I should be careful not to get fertilizer on the leaves of the plants I’m fertilizing and which kinds of tomatoes she thinks are the best to grow and when to plant sweet peas. Best of all, she didn’t even complain when I planted a potato vine and a five-leafed akebia vine on the arbor that stands between her garden and mine. These two have the Banksia Rose in a full-nelson now, despite my efforts to get rid of them.

Anytime a gardener plants an unusual plant, it pays to look into its background first. No matter how attractive or how beneficial a plant is, it looses its charm when you can’t control it. Take Kudzu, for instance. Judy and I were sitting near a bank overlooking the May River in Bluffton this weekend when I noticed a purple flower spike jutting up from a healthy looking vine covering the river’s bank. The flowers were pea-like in a rich purple color, on six or eight inch long spikes, and they smelled like grape Nehi.

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have picked some of it and brought it home, but being a Georgia girl, as I am, I recognized the thing by its leaves. Pueraria montana var. lobata is its botanical name, but it’s more commonly known as Kudzu.

You see Kudzu all over the southeastern United States, but it always has seemed the most abundant along I-20 between here in Atlanta. That may not be my imagination.

Kudzu was introduced into the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Japanese exhibit contained a garden filled with the vine, bearing sweet smelling blooms and healthy green leaves. It began to be planted first ornamentally. Then during the Great Depression, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged people to plant it for erosion control.

Alabama filmmaker Max Shores tells us that Kudzu’s most vocal advocate was Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, a WSB-AM (Atlanta) radio personality. During the 1940’s Cope traveled across the southeast starting Kudzu Clubs to honor what he called “the miracle vine.”

Covington, Georgia is right there in the Kudzu corridor along the interstate. Maybe the proliferation of the vine there was not just in my head.

Cope was disappointed when the U.S. government stopped advocating the use of Kudzu in 1953. Kudzu just grows too well here it seems. Our winters aren’t cold enough to kill back the roots, and Kudzu spreads like a creature from a science fiction novel. The vines grow as much as a foot per day during the summer, over trees, power poles, and anything else it comes in contact with.
To get rid of it, you must continuously cut back the leaves to deplete its carbohydrate supply or destroy the root crown, a fibrous mass of tissue that sits on top of the root, which can regenerate, even it’s dumped in another site.
Some parts of Kudzu are edible. The young leaves can be used for salad, or cooked like spinach. I’ve read about, but never tried, the flowers of Kudzu that may be battered and fried or made into jelly, and the roots that can be cooked as well. Parts of Kudzu are used in herbal medicine.
The southeastern United States is no longer the only area with claim to Kudzu creep. Dr. Harry Shealy tells me that it has spread north to Illinois and west to Texas. It’s also invaded South Africa, Malaysia and some western Pacific Islands. But we may claim the most acres covered – over 2,000,000.

Kudzu blooms everywhere, he says, not only along the coast. The flowers just don’t show up well from a distance. If I like the flowers, and they are quite attractive, I could plant a Millettia, or Evergreen Wisteria vine, a much more mannerly look-alike. But I won’t plant a Kudzu vine on the arbor or anywhere else. That might push Judy over the edge.

For a county of around 150,000, Aiken is well represented in “Garden and Gun” magazine’s “50 Best of the New South” this month. The article names Beech Island native Jenks Farmer, Best Horticulturist . Jenks is curator and designer of Moore Farms in Lake City, SC and owner of Lush Life Nursery, a great mail-order source for Crinum Lilies. Woodlanders’ Nursery, right here in downtown Aiken, is listed as “Best Nursery.” There is plenty of competition in both arenas. Hometown boys make good!