Kudzu (Pueraria montana) is a member of the bean family which has been called "The Vine That Ate the South." The vines have been known to grow 1 foot (0.3 m) a day during the summer months, choking out nutrients and sunlight to neighboring trees and plants. Thousands of acres of land in the Southeastern United States have been overrun by kudzu since its first importation in 1876.
The plant is native to China and Japan, where it is used for medicinal teas, animal feed and a folk remedy for alcoholism. In 1876, representatives from Japan brought kudzu to the United States Centennial celebration held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was used as part of a larger exhibition of flowering Japanese plants. The plant caught the eye of a Florida-based plant nursery owner, who took samples back home for further study. Soon afterwards, Southern gardeners began to plant it as a protective ground cover and decorative foliage in gardens.
During the Depression, the US government hired men to plant kudzu on farms to prevent costly soil erosion. The climate conditions in the South were much better for kudzu growth than Japan or China, so the vines began to grow at a phenomenal rate. The uncontrolled growth led to acres of valuable forests and farmland becoming essentially worthless. By 1953, it was declared an official weed by the US government.
This is not to say that kudzu does not have any redeeming qualities. The leaves are a very popular food source for grazing animals such as goats and sheep. The vines can be woven into baskets and other decorative items. The blossoms, which generally appear in late summer, are very fragrant and can yield a type of edible jam. Scientists are currently trying to develop a viable treatment for alcoholics from the plant's roots.
Eradicating kudzu has become a full-time occupation for many Southerners, but the plant has proven notoriously difficult to kill. Even with the best herbicides available, it may take up to ten years to successfully kill a vine. The winter season in the South is not cold enough or long enough to freeze it into submission. The most common approaches to kudzu growth control are to introduce grazing animals to the area and to mechanically harvest the plants and resell them to enthusiasts.
Visitors to the Southeastern United States who are interested in viewing kudzu in action should look to open fields along the highway. The large green leaves which completely cover trees, power lines and abandoned structures are part of the vine system. In late summer, small flowers should appear, along with a pleasant fragrance. In certain parts of the Deep South, entire acres of land have been completely overrun, creating a surreal green landscape.