With spring comes the joy of new growth and the frustrations of new growth gone rogue.
We say “gone rogue” because these growths came into the south, including the mountains of Haywood County, as innovations, ways to improve the lives of farmers particularly. But they went bad, so bad that the same government that brought them here has spent millions trying to get them out.
We’re talking about the multiflora rose and the kudzu vine. Kudzu’s invasion has become synonymous with the South and with a good idea gone bad. While kudzu has blanketed sites in Haywood County the more pervasive invader here is the multiflora rose, which has left nary a pasture or woodland alone.
The multiflora is so doggone good at reproducing – and seems to flourish about anywhere, choking forests, eating up pastureland, creeping in from the edges of hayfields, even popping up persistently in lawns. And while it has made itself at home about everywhere in Haywood County, it is no native. Like kudzu, it came by government invitation, encouraged by the soil conservation service and the agricultural extension service.
Blights on a brilliant history
In the 1930s, soil conservation efforts saved Haywood County farms, particularly its slopes, from years of scarring and erosion. And the extension service not only worked closely with farmers to improve food production; it was a key factor in bringing electricity and telephone service to the farming communities. Extension helped provide canneries, improved food preservation, provided opportunities to breed better livestock, taught rural families how to promote and market their goods and crafts. Extension and soil conservation – and the ways farmers embraced those agencies here during the 20th century – dramatically improved Haywood County life and helped it prosper.
Still, that multiflora rose and kudzu – those are painful hiccups in the story.
Multiflora rose, which is native to Southeast Asia, first arrived in the United States in 1866 as a root stock for growing ornamental roses. When soil conservation became a pressing issue in the 1930s, scientists took note of the plant’s fast-growing nature and thick growth, and had an idea: why not use the multiflora rose as a natural hedge, one that would improve the soil over time? Farmers were encouraged to plant lines of the rosebushes to develop these fences. The plants were also beneficial to wildlife, and their fast-growing root systems would help hold soil on highly erodible lands. For a time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid landowners to plant multiflora rose.
It did not take long however, for farmers and government to realize that the plant they thought would contain their livestock and act as a natural boundary in fact had no boundaries of its own.
Distribution by bird
Part of the problem was that scientists apparently did not fully appreciate the role birds play in spreading multiflora rose. The rose hips on the bush remain throughout the winter, and birds consume them – and the seeds inside are apparently stimulated to germinate and reproduce when they pass through the birds’ digestive systems. And no one controls where birds drop their business.
Wayne Corpening was an extension agent in Haywood County during the late 1930s, returning after World War II as lead county agent until 1943. He helped organize the Haywood Electric Membership Cooperative, organized efforts to bring telephone service to outlying communities, organized community clubs and introduced production innovations on farms. He later moved to Winston Salem, where he served as mayor for many years, after serving in N.C. Governor Dan Moore’s administration. For all of Corpening’s accomplishments, he still winced during a 2000 interview about his years in Haywood, when asked about the multiflora rose. Like most extension agents in the 1930s, he did advise farmers to plant the rosebushes, encouraging farmers to use them to hold soil in washed-out gulleys or use them as fence lines that would also hold the soil.
Around the same time that conservationists were promoting the multiflora rose, they were encouraging farmers to plant another Asian import – kudzu. Kudzu vines first arrived in the United States in 1876 as part of a display at the Japanese Exhibition of the Philadelphia Centennial Expedition, though those plants were destroyed, as required by law, afterward. Near the end of the century, kudzu seeds were imported and sold for cultivation as an ornamental vine to use for shade porches and Southern homes – somewhat like wisteria. But, in 1900, Kudzu could be purchased through mail order catalogs. According to the Alabama Extension Service, within another five years it was promoted as livestock forage. With the huge focus on soil conservation in the 1930s, kudzu became extremely popular, particularly in the South, as a method of erosion control and soil restoration. By the 1940s, kudzu was so popular that many communities had kudzu clubs, even kudzu festivals.
“About 85 million kudzu plants were given to southern landowners by the Soil Erosion Service for land revitalization and to reduce soil erosion and add nitrogen to the soil,” according to a history of the plant provided by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service. “The Civilian Conservation Corps also planted kudzu throughout the South. The government offered up to $8 per acre as an incentive for farmers to plant their land in kudzu. About 3 million acres of kudzu had been planted on farms by 1945. Ironically, due to difficulties in establishment, many of these initial plantings did not survive.”
But the ones that did survive – how they thrived, until much of the land around the plantings were smothered in the vine. Once established, Kudzu is notoriously difficult to eliminate. Consider this description, also from Alabama Extension, which illustrates why:
“Vines grow outward in all directions, and roots grow down from a root crown located on the soil surface. Vines growing along the ground can root every foot or so at the nodes and form new root crowns that can become independent plants. Mature stands may contain tens of thousands of plants per acre and can create mats up to 8 feet thick.
“ … The vines my grow up to 60 feet in a single season and as much as one foot during a single day in the early summer. This amount of vine growth is supported by starchy, tuberous roots that can reach a depth of 12 feet in older patches and weigh as much as 200 to 300 pounds.”
Heavy frost will kill the kudzu back to the root crowns, but with those hundred-pound roots reaching 12 feet deep, Kudzu reemerges from its matt of dead vines to thrive and expand the next summer.
While livestock will readily eat kudzu, particularly in its early growth, their ability to control the plant is limited, particularly in the mountains, where it was planted in many areas that cannot be fenced to contain livestock.
From friend to foe
In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed kudzu as a common weed in the south. In 1997, Congress voted to place kudzu on the Federal Noxious Weed list. Though it is no longer on the federal listing, 13 states still designate it as such. throughout the South, kudzu continued to claim acres of land, until it blanketed huge portions of the South. North Carolina is one of four Southern states where kudzu is found in every county.
Kudzu is a versatile plant; its products have been used for medicine, food and paper. Some innovators have tried to market it and develop those products. Until ways are found to effectively control the vine, and the multiflora rose, however, these two mountain invaders will remain aggressive reminders of what can happen when a bad idea takes root – literally — in new ground, free of natural enemies and limitations.
(Sources for this story include the 1937 report of the Haywood County Agricultural Extension Service, “The History and Use of Kudzu in the Southeastern United States,” published by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System; “County extension helps citizen progress,” The Enterprise Mountaineer, Aug. 27, 1999; and “Looking back on legacy left behind,” the interview with Wayne and Mabel Clark Corpening, The Enterprise Mountaineer, June 2, 2000.)