Trashing Out with Kudzu and ‘Sherman’s Ghost’

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.

Kudzu the wrong way near Pineville, Kentucky.

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.

Kudzu on the march.
Photo credit: USDA

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.)

‘Sherman’s Ghost’ kudzu

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.

Landscape planting of ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum.
Photo credit: J.C. Raulston Arboretum

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.

‘Silberstein’ pokeweed

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.”

Posted by

Allen Bush
on October 22, 2014 at 6:15 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy.

Comment List

  • Garden Rant 10 / 11 / 2016

    Great post! That pokeweed looks for all the world like my Aucuba ‘Picturata.’
    Btw, I’m a Sherman on my mother’s side and growing up in Richmond, we weren’t allowed to tell anyone that. Susan

  • Abby 18 / 11 / 2016

    Kudzu isn’t only relegated to abandoned areas. There is kudzu in my backyard across a large stream. I can’t mow it because the stream is too deep to get a mower across and I tried cutting the nodes from the rhizomes, but I’m just one person and can’t get it all. I gave up when I ended up with poison ivy around my midsection (ants bit me, scratched with gloves, spread oils…) because sprouting poison ivy looks a lot like sprouting kudzu (just redder). It’s all I can do to keep it from spreading across the stream.

  • Sandra Pullen 20 / 11 / 2016

    Maybe you could borrow some goats for a few hours.

  • Laura Bell 21 / 11 / 2016

    Out here in Cali, we can rent goats by the handful or by the herd. Maybe you could find someone with a few that would like to take a walk across your stream every few days?

  • Bill 21 / 11 / 2016

    The Kudzu Bugs were dealt a blow but they are still around here in Decatur, GA. Kudzu did have a good year, though. There used to be goats in a neighboring lot who occasionally escaped into the nearby kudzu and seemed as though they’d just gone to heaven.

  • Deborah Banks 21 / 11 / 2016

    Those darn plant geeks. I admit that ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ is pretty, but it’s nice to hear that kudzu is illegal in NY. Who the heck would think of creating cultivars of kudzu? But I did just plant the ‘Silberstein’ pokeweed this summer and have great hopes for it. It’s already shown itself to be tough; I planted a baby just before our 6 week drought, and it doubled in size with only minimal hand watering. I also planted ‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey this summer, just to show how foolhardy I am. (Where did you say they sell Sherman’s Ghost? No, just kidding!)

  • Alice 21 / 11 / 2016

    With less chlorophyll wouldn’t ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ be somewhat weaker than it’s parents? Perhaps it is easier to control but I still wouldn’t plant it. I once saw Kudzu running across a rarely used highway exit ramp; it was early in the morning and I suspect it really grew 10′ overnight.

  • Allen Bush 21 / 11 / 2016

    Alice, from what I’ve heard, ‘Sherman’s Ghost’ is slower growing.

  • Allen Bush 21 / 11 / 2016

    Kermit, I’d never heard pokeweed called inkberry but, now, it makes sense. I got a call 20 years ago to collect wild pokeberries. The customer was a Polish firm. They wanted to grow plants for the ink that the berries produced. Polish meat was inspected and stamped with pokeweed ink. Thanks, also for the interesting origin of the pen knife.

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