Okay, I'll say something about kudzu

It’s not every day a book is published in which your name appears, and yet this winter both Ben and myself have that honor. We’ve told you about The Age of Deer, a breathtaking meditation on our relationship with nature, in which Ben was asked about deer as pests. Now, March will see the publication of Devoured: The Extraordinary Story of Kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South.

Cover of "Devoured": the extraordinary story of kudzu, the vine that ate the South

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I don’t talk about kudzu much any more; grad school was best left behind.  But maybe it's time to say a little more about it, or, at least, my infamous subject. Kudzu became my PhD thesis topic after a “starter” project, meant to get my feet wet, produced surprising results. For that project, I rented a car in Toronto and drove into the deep south to collect a plant I had never seen and only just heard about the month before. It seemed like it should be not too hard to find “the vine that ate the South”, except it was March and it was still dormant and looked like every other dormant vine.  

Still, everyone, from the grocery clerk to the extension agent were only too happy to lead me to their local kudzu patch.  I collected some dormant stems and roots and drove them (dubiously) back to the greenhouse in Toronto. From there, tests of their freezing tolerance showed that kudzu could in fact survive winter temperatures into Canada. Boom, thesis topic. Three years later, a patch was discovered on the north shore of Lake Erie (don’t worry, it wasn’t me—it had been there at least ten years), which became my field site for spring, summer, and fall measurements of photosynthesis, growth rate, chilling tolerance, and frost tolerance.

Heather Coiner measuring kudzu photosynthesis near Leamington, Ontario, July 2011

Caption: Me measuring photosynthesis on the north shore of Lake Erie, July 2011. [This photo was picked for publication--woohoo!!]

I say “kudzu became my thesis topic” because at first I wasn’t too keen; I wanted to study plants that lived in extreme environments like the high alpine, or hottest deserts, not some fat, mesic, sloppy vine. But, not surprisingly, kudzu grew on me. The cultural importance of this vine played no small part in that. Imagine asking a small-town passerby where the closest Arabidopsis patch was (an important and ubiquitous weed used as a model species). Good luck.

I also loved how kudzu had flip-flopped in the public consciousness from savior to scourge since its late 19th-century introduction, and how now, when it is impossible to imagine a South without kudzu, southerners still love to hate it. Kind of like deer, actually.

All this is to say that I am so excited to read Ayurella’s book. The best part of kudzu is its story. Kudzu’s rise and fall illuminate agricultural policy, and its firm rootedness in the South challenges ideas of invasiveness, and ultimately, our relationship with nature.

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