Morris: A Botanical Horror Story

June 11, 2018

by Leo Morris

Don’t trust the Internet. The information you find there might not be entirely accurate. — Mark Twain

Pity the poor folks of Monroe County. They’re right in the path of the menacing mile-a-minute vine, another dangerous invasive species from that awful Asia.

It can grow up to six inches in a single day, so better not slow down if you’re in its path or it might just crawl all over you.

It’s a nuisance, says Ellen Jacquart, invasive-species education chair for the Indiana Native Plant and Wildlife Society, because its rapid growth can crowd out other plants. Using its barbs, the vine pushes up and over other plants, blocking the sun and robbing other species of nutrients. “Once it’s in the area, you can’t walk through it,” she says.

The mile-a-minute vine is said to be similar to kudzu in that way, with one big exception. It’s an annual, rather than a perennial, which means it does not have an extensive root system, making it easier to kill.

Well, that’s a relief.

I know all about kudzu.

All my life I have known it as “the vine that ate the South.” It was introduced to the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It might have remained in relative obscurity, a novelty plant used for shade and livestock feed, except for an aggressive marketing campaign in the 1930s by the federal government as Congress declared war on erosion and chose kudzu as the primary weapon against it.

It has been estimated that almost 3 million acres of the “crop” were planted in the Southeast over the next decade. It has been spreading like the parasite it is ever since, some say by as much as 150,000 acres a year.

And somewhere along the way, the plant achieved almost mythic status. It provided such a perfect metaphor for any creeping menace you could think of, from poverty and the explosion of repressed sexuality to racism and illegal immigration. Thanks to writers as diverse as James Dickey and Alice Walker, kudzu has become synonymous with the dark, Gothic South that lives in the American imagination.

Not that I have needed the myth. I’ve watched the plant seemingly gobble up large parts of my native Eastern Kentucky, blanketing hills and hollows once a riot of diverse flora with the monstrous vines of a depressingly ugly shade of green. On my last visit home, I saw that our old home had been reduced to its foundation, replaced by clumps of kudzu. And Kentucky isn’t even the real South.

But, as I so often have, I went and spoiled a good story. I did some research that involved more than scanning the first few Google entries.

And discovered that the vine that ate the South might not have as big an appetite as I had chosen to believe. Naturalist Bill Finch, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, cites the latest careful sampling by the U.S. Forest Service (as of 2015) to the effect that kudzu occupies only about 227,000 acres. That’s about the size of a small county and about a sixth the size of Atlanta.

Furthermore, it’s spreading at the rate of only about 2,500 acres a year, and the Japanese kudzu bug is now infecting many of the vines, sucking out their vital juices.

So, where did the fantastic claims of its wild spread come from?

“Kudzu has appeared larger than life because it’s most aggressive when planted on road cuts and railroad embankments – habitats that became front and center in the age of the automobile. As trees grew in the cleared lands near roadsides, kudzu rose with them. It appeared not to stop because there were no grazers to eat it back. But, in fact, it rarely penetrates deep into a forest; it climbs well only in sunny areas on the forest edge and suffers in shade.”

What am I to believe? The scary stories augmented by my sad memories? Or the “latest careful sampling” by the experts on the subject? It’s not that much of a dilemma. As I’ve often observed in the middle of an argument, anecdotes do not trump evidence.

And there is the bonus that the truth about kudzu can serve as a more useful metaphor in this age of Great Internet Scare Stories, all about things that seem menacing with a casual glance at the side of the road but much less so if you just walk a little way into the woods.

Make a note, would-be Gothic novelists of Monroe County.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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