Kudzu is the poster child for invasive plants. The vine that gobbled up more than seven million acres in the south became the unintended consequence of the USDA’s plan to stop erosion. When African-Americans, in 1910, began their migration from the rural south to northern cities, the vine would eventually go wild.
Marco Polo wrote about kudzu (he called it ko), but it was centuries before someone compared the flower fragrance to grape Nehi soda.
Jesuits in Siam, in the 1660s, were hyping its potential textile use. Kudzu gathered steam. The Japanese displayed six kudzu plants at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. (Three plants stayed behind with Emperor Franz Joseph.) The Japanese figured they were onto something. Kudzu made its American premiere, touted as a “miracle plant,” at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition (the first official American World’s Fair).
No one thought the Japanese disingenuous for stealing all the thunder for a Chinese species. And Americans paid little mind to kudzu for the next fifty years. Seeds wouldn’t germinate, and hopes for miracles were dashed.
But then something else happened. What that is remains unclear, but horticulturist and historian John Peter Thompson speculates that multiple botanical varieties were openly pollinated on USDA research stations, and the resulting seed germination, coupled with hybrid vigor, produced the invasive kudzu we know today.
And now a variegated version has come along that has stirred a new hornet’s nest: Would anybody in his or her right mind plant kudzu—in any form?
On a closed Facebook group of zany plant geeks, an interesting and civil discussion evolved. The group’s name will remain secret. (Indeed, it might even be beyond the scope of the NSA. Botanical Latin is too bewildering to geeks of another realm, who rarely see the light of day and are more fascinated with computer code than biota.)
On a recent Facebook post titled: “Trashing Out with Kudzu,” a member showed a photo of the variegated kudzu cultivar, ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ and asked, “Want some?!” The responses came tumbling:
“I need some of this!!!”
Of course, they wanted some. Covetous wretches! Well, some did. Others thought ill of the idea. (Point of reference: I lean toward covetous wretch.)
“ Very Noxious weed that nothing will kill it and spreads like wild fire. You might as well be sharing poison ivy.”
“Horrors. But it is pretty.”
I first saw Pueraria montana var. lobata ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ in 2011 at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, NC. The variegated kudzu was planted on a pergola. Skinny vines were neatly spaced and hung from the trellis to nearly the ground. The provocative planting looked like vertical blinds.
General William Tecumseh Sherman was the Civil War Union General who marched across Georgia to the sea, ransacking everything as he went. The kudzu cultivar ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the Union General is back with a vegetal vengeance to conquer more of the south. Or maybe the north and west?
“It’s kudzu fer gawds sake. WTF! Really? You’re gonna plant it? ”
There’s no evidence ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ has gone anywhere that it is not wanted.
But in spite of earlier noble plans to use kudzu for food, fuel, flowers and forage, kudzu’s history in the south has badly tarnished the vining legume’s future popularity.
“I’m intrigued, but alas it’s illegal here.”
Citizens of New York are forbidden ownership of ‘Sherman’s Ghost’—or any kudzu kin. It hardly matters that a young William Tecumseh Sherman attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. So much for that.
Is there a variegated alternative? Variegated poison ivy, if you can find it, is up for grabs. What a great cultivar name: Toxicodendron orientale ‘Seven Year Itch’. But easy does it. It’s an Asian species—an aspirational interloper—not our native poison ivy.
So if you’re all stars and bars forever, and obsessed by variegated plants, the native pokeweed Phytolacca americana might be your answer. And if you prefer one—and, eventually, and possibly dozens—try ‘Silberstein’ (Silver Stone). Remember: Pokeweeds will seed bomb your garden.
You should pay attention to plantsman Tony Avent’s advice. “We recommend a horticultural circumcision before fruit drop.”