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Save the kudzu - fuel of the future!
by Gene Owens

Nothing is more gratifying to a columnist than to see something he threw out as an off-hand suggestion receive scientific validation.

Now it can be revealed: A respectable researcher has come around to my view that kudzu could be the answer to our fuel problems. Back in May, I wrote a column proposing that scientists inject some sugar cane DNA into the kudzu vine, thus producing an inexhaustible source of ethanol. Now, a fellow named Rowan Sage, a professor at the University of Toronto, says kudzu can produce the ethanol without that booster shot from sugar cane.

The secret is in its roots. Kudzu roots contain rich deposits of starch, which can be converted into ethanol.

It had never occurred to me that kudzu had roots. I figured that roots would only hold it back as it raced across the landscape. But in reviewing my past columns on the subject, I found that a kudzu root can weigh as much as 100 pounds and can lie up to 20 feet underground.

For years I've been pre-occupied with Kudzu and its persistent threat to the South. For much of that time, I've searched out ways to stop the vine, with an occasional pause to savor kudzu jelly and admire baskets woven from the kudzu vine. I even scribbled a few verses about kudzu and invited readers to share their kudverse with me. My own effort:

      "I'm feelin' sad and blue
      'Cause I lost my Kudzu Sue;
      Her smile was as sweet as summer wine,
      But before I could woo her
      The kudzu overgrew her,
      And now my love lies underneath the vine."
Then reader Catherine Golden pointed me toward the book "Passalong Plants," by S. Bender and F. Rushing (1993, the University of North Carolina Press), which contained this poem set to the tune of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues":

      "I see that kudzu coming;
      It's climbing up my tree,
      And if I don't start running
      It will soon be climbing me;
      It covered my Ford Fairlane,
      It slithered under my front door,
      It swallered my best birddog,
      I'll never hear his bark no more."
Given the tragic theme of these elegies, you can understand why much of my writing has dealt with ways to stop kudzu. I chronicled the valiant attempt of the Santa Rosa County Commission in the Florida Panhandle to outlaw the vine. The commissioners decreed that no property owner should allow kudzu on his property to spread to adjoining property. Kudzu still flourishes in the Panhandle, possibly because nobody wants to turn his property into a 20-foot-deep crater to determine which side of the line the 100-pound root lies on. Stopping kudzu at a property line is even tougher than trying to stop illegal immigration at the Rio Grande.

I also wrote about the idea of David Orr, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, to breed a kudzu-eating caterpillar. Orr proposed that the caterpillar of the looper moth, which normally feasts on soybeans, be injected with about 500 wasp larvae. The baby wasps would help themselves to the caterpillar's lunch as it moved down its alimentary canal. Having to eat for itself and 500 hungry larvae, the caterpillar would soon abandon the soybean patch for the much more productive kudzu field. It would eat kudzu faster than the vine could grow. By the time the caterpillar was ready to blossom as a moth, the wasp larvae would be ready to sprout wings. They would turn on the caterpillar and kill it.

My fear was that the wasp larvae would miss their cue and the caterpillar would go on gobbling kudzu until it grew to monster proportions and ate the South alive.

In another column, I tried to imagine what would happen if DNA from poison ivy were to be implanted accidentally in a kudzu vine. The very thought had me itching.

The city of Chattanooga came up with a more effective, if more prosaic, solution when it launched goats into the kudzu that threatened to cover up historic Missionary Ridge. To protect the goats against marauding dogs, Chattanooga sent in a bunch of mean-tempered llamas. Last I heard, Cemetery Ridge still stood above the kudzu, and the goats and llamas were well-fed and happy.

Now my suggestion is that we call off the goats, llamas and looper moths and repeal the anti-kudzu ordinance in Santa Rosa County. Don't try to weaken the kudzu; pump it up with steroids if you wish.

If Sage and his colleagues are correct, the South can become the Saudi Arabia of biofuels. With kudzu providing the fuel for our economy, Midwest corn can be profitably used in cattle feed, grits, cornbread, corn flakes and bourbon. We won't have to shove food prices upward by diverting food grains into ethanol.

The price of kudzu jelly and kudzu baskets may rise, but we can live with that.


Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.

Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
Polaroid fades into history
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
Greasepit Grammar: A Pronominal grand slam
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Raspberry ants are coming
Flocking South with the snowbirds
Juicy Fruit will gum up the mole works
Dan Rather and the Texas truth
Putting on the dog!
The scars turned to flowers
If only our forefathers had used attack ads
Decent 'dogs
Thoughts from the Southern road
Sic the goats on your kudzu

Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com

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