Even a scourge is an excuse for Southern hospitality

A festival in Mississippi pays homage to kudzu, the plant that overtakes everything from country hillsides to houses to farm equipment.

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At least Diane Coble isn't afraid of it: kudzu, the crawling green vine that creates mayhem throughout Dixie.

In fact, she has befriended the leafy monster. Every day, as the blazing sun beats down, Mrs. Coble hops on her tractor and plows through miles of the plant. But then she collects some of the mass of twisted vines and makes kudzu furniture - tables, chairs, even beds.

"You just have to get a handle on it," explains Mrs. Coble, wiping sweat from her tanned forehead at the 11th annual Kudzu Festival in Holly Springs, Miss.

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In this small town framed by kudzu-covered wooded hillsides, she and other folks in Mississippi are paying homage to a scourge that that has become a fixture in Southern landscape.

"We know we have something unique down here," says Ruth Khola of the Holly Springs Chamber of Commerce. "So we started the festival to celebrate kudzu."

Since the town was able to escape the rampages of General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, it has retained some of its historic character. Grant had housed his wife, Julia, in Holly Springs at the castle-like plantation called Walter Place while Union soldiers occupied the area. The Confederates ordered their soldiers not to disturb the house while she was present. Because of this chivalry, Grant spared the city - and its houses - from destruction. It now has more than 60 antebellum homes.

On this sultry Saturday morning, the historic court house square in Holly Springs bustles with activity at the Kudzu Festival. As the controversial Rebel flag blows in the breeze, a booth hawks paintings of Confederate war heroes and T-shirts emblazoned with the word GRITS, short for Girls Raised in the South. A band plays Southern favorites under the white gazebo, and down the road, a barbecue cook-off gets under way.

By noon, however, the kudzu jelly has long vanished.

"You cook the blooms from the plant," explains Helen Mason, who occasionally makes the delicacy. "It's a light purple color and sweet. You can also cook the leaves of the kudzu and use it as a vegetable."

And that's not all. Dealing with a yearly invasion of kudzu requires creative innovation. Hence, the myriad kudzu products - necklaces, soap, baskets, candles, and syrup.

Kudzu blankets more than 2 million acres in the South. Like the man-eating plant Audrey II in "The Little Shop of Horrors," kudzu engulfs everything in its path. It smothers houses, railroad tracks, farm equipment, trees, and, locals say, even a person standing still long enough.

Perhaps it's slightly strange for Southerners to honor a plant so loathed in the region.

"Hey, we've been trying to make peace with this plant for years," says Johnny Pollard of Water Valley, Miss. "It takes over everything. You know it's in control so you might as well bow down to it."

In 1876, Japan introduced kudzu to the United States at the Centennial Exposition, where it was used in the Japanese pavilion as a fragrant ornamental vine. Americans fell in love with the plant during the expo when its lavender-blue, wisteria-like panicles flowered, filling the air with a grape juice scent.

When Southern farmers found that livestock ate the fast-growing kudzu like gourmet salad, they began planting field after field of it. It was also found to prevent soil erosion.

But the plant grows 100 feet per year, or at times 18 inches a day. Now, almost one third of plant species run the risk of extinction as kudzu gobbles up 4,600 acres of public lands every day. And kudzu continues to migrate northward.

"When kudzu invades, it screens out all other life and brings the plant cycle to a screeching halt," says Ed Bostick, a biology professor at Kennesaw State College in Kennesaw, Ga.

Kudzu will die after the first frost and leave behind knotted vines and roots that harden like cement. A kudzu patch can sink a root 8-feet deep and create a knot the size of an oak stump.

"You can't even budge this stuff in winter," says Coble. "I figure we aren't getting rid of this stuff anytime soon, so I might as well make the best of it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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