Some plants and their traits are more than we bargain for

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Plant enthusiasts throughout history have constantly scoured our globe looking for new and more spectacular plants to make waves in our landscapes. Our insatiable appetite for the new and unusual has resulted in the introduction of thousands of plants to our landscapes since the time that global exploration began. In fact, many if not most, of our ornamental flora have been introduced to our area from around the globe.

Often, a plant species in its native area will respond quite differently when moved to another area of the globe. Many times the newly introduced species lacks vigor and does not perform well in other areas. Every once in a while you will find one that is very vigorous.

One such introduction was Pueraria lobata. The first Pueraria plants to put down roots in the United States were those brought from Japan in 1876 to grow at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in the Japanese pavilion. In 1883, it was again displayed at the New Orleans Exposition. The plant was unique and different and attracted lots of attention from the garden lovers of the day.

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This wonderful new plant was not officially introduced into the garden trade until about 1910. And what a splash this specimen made! If this plant was being introduced today, it would surely have been patented by one of the big plant companies like Proven Winners or be an All-America selection winner. This new plant had all of the characteristics needed to be a hit in the gardening world.

During the intense heat of summer, the lush dark green foliage would provide quick coverage, and therefore, additional shade for one to escape the intense heat. It was great when used on trellises and arbors. Furthermore, it was easy to grow in practically any soil. And, to top it all off, it also produced beautiful fragrant blue flowers in the late summer. Pueraria was the dream plant for the southern garden.

By the 1920s, the sale of this dream plant had hit a fevered pitch. Crowns and seeds of the plant were advertised and sold in mail order catalogs. Pueraria was especially popular in gardens here in the deep south.

A great promoter of this new plant was a man living in Chipley, Fla., named C.E. Pleas. pleas was disappointed by the performance of his plants as an ornamental so he promptly replanted them near a pile of garbage in the rear of his property. And guess what? The Pueraria grew like crazy. Pleas discovered to his delight that his animals were eating the leaves with no ill effects. Horses, cows, pigs, goats and chickens were all indulging in the lush leaves.

From then on, Pleas began his one man promotion of this wonder vine as a plant for pasturage and fodder. He even sold rooted cuttings through the mail which led him to be investigated by the U.S. Postal Service for mail fraud. The official in charge of the investigation found it difficult to believe that this plant grew as fast as Pleas claimed. After his visit to Pleas’ farm for several days, the officer dropped the investigation and Pleas accepted his sincere apologies.

In 1920, an agricultural agent for the Central Georgia Railroad named John Rigdon learned of the virtues of Pueraria. He in turn convinced the railroad that this incredibly fast growing, nutritional plant was also beneficial for soil conservation. The railroad began to give away free plants and pamphlets with cultural information combined with its uses as food for animals.

In 1933, the Soil Erosion Service was established by congress and in 1935, the named was changed to the Soil Conservation Service. The southern states were in desperate need of a plant to help control erosion. So once again, Pueraria came to the rescue. Added benefits were discovered including the fact that since Pueraria is a leguminous plant, it helped to revitalize poor soils by giving nitrogen back. The discovery that no drought was tough enough to kill this plant made it seem even more valuable.

By the 1940s and 50s the plant that was introduced from japan as a garden wonder had spread like an uncontrollable vegetative wildfire throughout the Southeast and literally covered everything in its path.

By 1955, supporters of Pueraria began to think of the vine as the plant equivalent to fire ants and killer bees. This new scourge of the south was even described as a &uot;natural disaster&uot; and described by James Dickey as &uot;a vegetal form of cancer.&uot;

Most people probably don’t recognize this plant by its botanical name Pueraria lobata. Most are familiar with its funny sounding common name … kudzu. And now you know the rest of the story! Good day!

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. She can be reached at Fred’s Greenhouse at 445-5181 or by email at