Mommy, where did all the kudzu come from? Highway Engineers, dear.

This post is slightly off-topic, but it’s preservation-related because who among us hasn’t seen an old building in the process of being swallowed by kudzu? A friend sent me this article and I thought it deserved to have a new life in the digital age since it tells the story of kudzu still fairly close to the time it was introduced to the South and therefore, possibly, may be a semi-accurate version of its genesis. As our kudzu sprouts for a new growing season, we have one more thing to blame the highway engineers for.

“Vine from Orient Causing Big Problem in Mississippi”

By Paul and Doris La Cour

Some 25 years ago the highway departments of the Southern states began taking an interest in a strange vine from the Orient. It was not new, since it had first been exhibited in America at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, but it was new to the South, and it promised great things for a particular need, erosion control. Especially erosion control along the deep cuts then being made for new roads.

This tough creeper seemed to hold all the answers. It grew on poor soil, it sent down deep drouth-licking roots, and it could cover the ground with soil-holding growth in no time. Georgia was one of the first states to try it. And soon there were many tales to tell, tales of a wondrous mantle of green suddenly bursting across ugly red washes–tales of a miracle plant–of a vegetable savior of an eroded land.

The highway people in Mississippi were, in due time, impressed. In the bluff country along the Mississippi river, where the roads take hefty slices out of the hills, there was an enormous washing problem. Especially around the Vicksburg and Natchez area, a region of rich, loam soil, pushed up into steep hills. So, it was to this section that the kudzu eventually made its way.

At first, all went according to plan. The kudzu spread rapidly over the spongy knolls and in a few years there was a cascading fountain of greenery spilling over the ravines and delighting the eye of the traveler and highway engineer alike. There came huzzas for the kudzu.

Time passed. The cheers also passed. For there began to creep with the vine a suspicion and a doubt that the vine did not have erosion-control at heart. There seemed to be no end to the growth, it began to accelerate and accumulate. Faster and faster it spreads. It ran and leaped and climbed; it engulfed living trees, turned abandoned houses into lumps of green growth, spanned country roads and smothered everything before and inexorable wave of vegetable aggression. There came no more applause. In fact, now there came sighs. And curses.

And no one quite knows for certain how to vanquish the vine.

There have been solutions offered. Cows, for instance. Cows love the stuff, but cows can’t fly when the kudzu takes to the trees. True, they could eat it back to the very ground, but the root system is firmly and safely entrenched along the fenced-off right-of-way. There is sometimes talk of poison, too, but as yet the right one hasn’t been offered. Most poisons seem amazingly eager to waft themselves over nearby cotton fields and strike down the cash crop of an already unfriendly farmer. Unfriendly because he must stand guard along his fence and hew back the encroaching vine.

If the battle against the kudzu should be won, there remains the original problem. What’s to stop the erosion?

New Orleans Times Picayune, Sunday morning, October 15, 1961

KUDZU ALONG THE HIGHWAY . . . An oriental legume, whose runners grow from 20 to 50 feet in a single season, has been used in Mississippi since 1936 to prevent erosion. In addition, Kudzu's large dark green leaves make a picturesque covereing for rough roadbanks and hillsides along Mississippi's paved highways.

KUDZU ALONG THE HIGHWAY . . . An oriental legume, whose runners grow from 20 to 50 feet in a single season, has been used in Mississippi since 1936 to prevent erosion. In addition, Kudzu’s large dark green leaves make a picturesque covereing for rough roadbanks and hillsides along Mississippi’s paved highways.

Categories: Environment/Green

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13 replies

  1. In the early 1970s, a friend driving from Greenwood to Jackson on the old (and treacherous) Highway 49 south between Yazoo City and Little Yazoo had his trailer come loose from his truck. In his rear view mirror, he saw it sail off into the kudzu. By the time he pulled over and backed up to the spot, it had disappeared into the green depths and wisdom dictated that he leave it be. Unless it was unearthed during the 4-laning of 49, I guess it’s still there. Along with who knows what else……Jimmy Hoffa, maybe?


  2. My Dad was in the CCC prior to WWII and they were tasked to plant kudzu.


  3. A few years ago, someone kept a herd of goats on Highway 17, between Tchula and Lexington, and those insatiable animals cleared off a massive amount of kudzu in just a few months’ time. It seems to be creeping back now.


  4. Has anyone tried Kudzu jelly? Is delicious!


  5. The photo is from vintage postcard…or rather a vintage postcard used the photo. LOL. It’s commonly known as a scene from the Tupelo, Mississippi area however I’m not sure if that’s been confirmed or not.


  6. I remember asking my Dad the same question one afternoon while travelling down (old) Highway 82. I think he gave me the exact same answer! My reply was “why don’t they just cut it down?” Seriously, though, on a visit to Windsor Ruins I saw a house (or barn, not sure) that was almost engulfed in the stuff. I backed back down the road to get a picture!


  7. The upper scene on this vintage Tupelo, Mississippi picture postcard uses the same image as posted for this article. I do not know exactly where the photograph was taken. Could be anywhere. HA!


  8. Good eye to both of you! I don’t think I would have caught the identical picture in that Tupelo card, and Bobby, you’ve got a great memory! Would love to see what that stretch of highway looks like today, and maybe with your information, someone will go track it down!


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