Voices    Lifestyle

The story of Kudzu in Chattanooga

A kudzu takeover | Photo by Katie Ashdown

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Austin Browder, an aspiring contributor, has lived and worked in Chattanooga since January 2020.

When I first learned the name of the sprawling green vine, I was standing outside my coworker’s house after dinner one summer evening. “What’s this vine growing all over?” I asked.

That’s kudzu.” My host answered. “I hate it. It grows everywhere and strangles everything.” No kidding. I had never seen anything grow like it.

Kudzu, or Japanese Arrowroot, is native to Asia. It was first imported to the US for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and was brought down as an ornamental vine used to shade Southern porches. The story of kudzu begins at the height of The Great Depression.

The government offered as much as $20 an acre incentive for farmers in the South to plant kudzu in an attempt to reduce widespread soil erosion. By 1946, farmers had planted around 1.2 million acres.

Over the second half of the century, kudzu lost its USDA recommendation for erosion control. Kudzu is now considered an invasive species in many states, and the truth of the stories told about kudzu varies.

In 2007, Chattanooga made The New York Times by using goats for kudzu removal.

“The Missionary Ridge goats and the project’s tragicomic turns have created headlines, inspired a folk ballad, and invoked more than their share of goat-themed chuckles.”

 “In Tennessee, Goats Eat the ‘Vine that Ate the South’” shows the distance between the reality of kudzu and the discussion of it.

“Now embedded in the South, as well as in parts of Oklahoma, Texas, and some Northern states, kudzu can be found on at least a million acres of federal forest land, and probably millions more acres of private land.”

This is simply not the case. Current US Forest Service estimates show kudzu covers around 227,000 acres total. I would not have known the difference if I had not found Bill Finch’s essay “The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine that Never Truly Ate the South” in Smithsonian Magazine. Beyond revealing the facts, he described how journalistic and artistic voices cover a kudzu epidemic, spreading misconceptions.

“Kudzu has appeared larger than life because it’s most aggressive when planted along road cuts and railroad embankments— habitats that became front and center in the age of the automobile… But, in fact, it rarely penetrates deeply into a forest; it climbs well only in sunny areas on the forest edge and suffers in shade.”

Planted by depression-era farmers at the advice of the government, kudzu was a creative idea. After it became problematic, so were the Missionary Ridge goats.

“Safety just will not let you get in on some of those slopes with equipment or even people trying to clear it by hand… And that’s where the goats come in,” said Ray W. Burden Jr., Institute of Agriculture at UTK.

Guffaws aside, that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes this Northern transplant proud to call Chattanooga home.