Kudzu – Story Behind the Images

To celebrate the upcoming release of our new book Kudzu, we ask its authors Sabine Bungert and Stefan Dolan for stories behind the 5 images.

“The vine that ate the south” is the common description for kudzu. In some regions, kudzu has covered large tracts of land, completely transforming them in the process. The plant not only overruns trees, sometimes it covers entire areas including houses. It’s hard to say, if people are still living there. The highly invasive plant has excellent climbing characteristics and has infiltrated the American Southern States for several decades now. Despite their ecological threat, the abstract sculptures formed by kudzu are an impressive example of nature‘s power.

We took this image in the rural area between the Mississippi river and the town of Port Gibson. The native vegetation of this wide area has been almost completely taken over by kudzu. One can just about see the roofs of the two caravans sticking out of the green thicket.

South Carolina, Greenville: Kudzu not only overruns trees, it isn’t only the native vegetation that is affected; the plant covers entire areas including the infrastructure of towns as well. The economic damage is enormous: Railway tracks have to be cleared of the green thicket repeatedly. Kudzu grows very fast–up to 30cm a day–and it can become up to 30m long. The overgrown bushes and trees here are completely reshaped by kudzu. In the region it’s common to call these leafy figures “kudzu monsters“.

These are the green kudzu fields we found in Mississippi. Today kudzu is a common sight along many roads in the South, with the heaviest concentration being in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The highly invasive plant was introduced into the US in 1876 from Asia and widely cultivated during the Great Depression in the 1930s as part of the New Deal programmes to stop soil erosion. But kudzu is a highly invasive plant and threatens the native vegetation. Biodiversity in the affected areas is significantly altered. This is a dramatic development, especially for the southern states, which have always had high levels of biodiversity due to their subtropical climate.

Georgia, Macon: This image is a good example of how kudzu even penetrates the cities. Here the vine conquered an abandoned gas station, while the billboard gives a hint to Ocmulgee Indian Celebration. It’s one of the largest Native American gatherings in the Southeast. In this region we found many areas completely overgrown by kudzu. In the meantime, in part due to a fascinating ambivalence, kudzu has also become firmly embedded in the culture of the southern states. The plant is the subject of plays, jokes and comics and it’s even described as an identity-creating symbol for the region. The plant has also made it into language, the word “kudzu” is a synonym for out-of-control growth. Kudzu has therefore not only changed the landscape of the southern states, but has become a part of daily life.