Service thought it a good idea to plant a climbing, coiling, trail-
ing, strangling vine native to Japan and China in an attempt to
control soil erosion. The Civilian Conservation Corps was
enlisted to engage hundreds of men in planting kudzu in the
South. What the government did not consider was that the plant
might grow better in Georgia and Alabama than it does in its
native environment. Some say that kudzu swallows 150,000
acres annually (others deliver far more conservative estimates).
Given the South’s scorching heat, heavy rains, humidity, and
mild winters, the vine’s proliferation takes on almost mythical
proportions. “If you just let it go and it grows a foot a day, what
do you think it’s going to do?” asks the King. “Take over the
mountain, right? And kill all the trees! You got to maintain it,
and work with it.”
One cannot talk about Georgia without talking about kudzu.
Thousands of acres in the South are covered by the “cuss-you
vine,” and much of Southern Appalachia can be made out only
by its contours. Kudzu kills, but (almost) nothing kills kudzu.
Scientists have researched herbicides but found that few have a
satisfactory e=ect on the resilient weed. James H. Miller of the
U.S. Forest Service in Auburn, Alabama, found one herbicide
that made kudzu grow even faster. And even if they did work,
herbicides are a problematic remedy because they run o= into
streams and poison the water. They kill trees and harm wildlife.
Others have looked for ways that kudzu could be put to use.
There are those who use it as an aphrodisiac, those who put it
on their skin, and those who cook with it; online you can find
recipes for deep-fried kudzu leaves, kudzu wine, kudzu quiche,
and kudzu tea. In 2012, researchers with the Behavioral Psycho-
pharmacology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital invited
ten volunteers to three drinking sessions inside a cozy laboratory
complete with reclining chairs, a television, a DVD player, and a
fridge stocked with beer. When the subjects were given pills con-
taining kudzu root, they consumed nearly half as much alcohol
as those given placebos. The kudzu group drank with modera-
tion, and showed no side e=ects from having ingested the weed.
By far the most e=ective and harmless way to control the inva-
sive vine is goats. Goats love kudzu. Family-owned companies
like Rent A Goat and Goat Busters (“Who you gonna call?”) o=er
goats to property owners as a safe and ecofriendly way to remove
kudzu. But the problem remains: there is quite a lot of kudzu,
and not nearly enough eaters.
Cleve PhilliPs —as some people call the King— was one of
seven children. His mother and stepfather worked at a J. P. Stevens cotton mill and, once he turned eight, Cleve too started working there. At first he performed menial janitorial duties; later he
worked his way up to weaving, running seventy looms at a time.