The most valuable legume

Published 2:52 pm Wednesday, September 22, 2010

This column first appeared on October 6, 1997. It is included in A Boy in the Amen Corner, a book of the first hundred or so of these columns, available at local bookstores or from the author.&bsp; &bsp;

In a conversation with John Vining and Andy Haynes after a meeting of the Courthouse Restoration Committee, Andy mentioned that he had a copy of a treatise written about kudzu by the man who introduced the ubiquitous vine to our county early in this [20th] century. J. R. Sams (note those initials!) was titled County Agricultural Agent at Large and lived in Columbus.

Judge J. J. Gentry of Spartanburg, who had a farm on Bird Mountain, solicited articles from Sams and testimonials from area farmers which the Judge then prevailed upon the Spartanburg Herald to publish in pamphlet form. Kudzu fine for rabbits, says J. Sprole Lyons of Landrum. One Geo. A. Branscom of Melvin Hill vouches for every word written by Sams. The Judge even adds an analysis by Henrys book of feed and feeding showing that kudzu has more of everything animals need than the former best plant, alfalfa.

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Sams leads off by declaring that kudzu is the most valuable legume given by God to man, and goes on at length to explain its value and cultivation. It is a bean brought over from Japan in mid-eighteenth century as an ornamental porch vine to produce shade. It was not until the likes of Sams began to promote it to farmers that imports began in earnest and the plant began its gradual takeover of the landscape.

Among sixteen virtues listed by Sams, we find that kudzu grows well in acid clay soil; needs no care or encouragement after the first year; once planted it stays planted; and it is the easiest of all plants to get rid of when desirable [italics supplied by G.]

My grandfather, T. A. Rippy, took the advice of his County Agent to heart in all matters. Papa Rippy terraced his hills and planted lespedeza in pastures and kudzu in the gullies. He gave Mama Rippy some kudzu to plant at the west end of the porch to shade the swing. Rippy Hill in the thirties was being run by the book, by golly, and the book promised prosperity.

Mama Rippy was pleased by the porch vines performance: it dutifully died back in the fall, and reappeared in full dark green vigor in late spring in time to provide thick shade against the afternoon sun for the swing. It even offered some little flowers to add to its attractiveness.

Their house burned to the ground and my father died in the late thirties. They moved into the tenant house in the hollow and later encouraged my mother to build a house for us on the foundation of their former house. The shade vine was lost, but the kudzu set to control the big gully back of the house was now well established down there.

When Mama Rippy noticed that the vines were beginning to climb the trees, she would make regular pilgrimages to cut off the vines and pull them down. I soon began to dread coming home from school because she would collar me and drag me to the trenches to help her do battle with the kudzu.

At first, we tried to dig it up. Forget that! The vine sends down roots about every foot, and there is a dense network of roots underground. We dug and pulled great piles of the stuff, but a month later you could not tell that we had done anything to it. I was eleven or twelve years old at the time, and you can believe that I had no enthusiasm whatever for that exercise in futility.

We turned&bsp; the cow onto it but she would not eat any significant amount of it, only the tender new growth. As soon as we left her she would climb the hill up to the yard and eat grass. Jean was pretty picky about her eating-she would rear up on her hind legs to pluck ripe apples from the trees, never eating any that had fallen to the ground.

Finally we just turned the kudzu back on itself at the edge of the yard and clipped it off where it started up the trees. It was an almost daily ritual, but necessary to preserve an oasis of grass around the house and to allow the trees to be trees.

John Vining recently asked for public input for a cooperative program to eradicate kudzu from our county. Only two or three people showed any interest. I keep a watchful eye for any sprouts on my city lot, since there is plenty of it only 200 feet away. Hearing of my interest in kudzu, Bob Stuedell brought for my birthday a potted kudzu plant which he had dug up at his home on Rippy Hill. My wife put it at the west end of our deck, even watered it for a while. I have utterly neglected it.