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Godzilla Vine

Ask those who've battled the beast to describe their foe, and you'll hear that it's unstoppable and that whatever stands in its path -- houses, vehicles, trees -- is soon obliterated. Just the mention of its Japanese name, in fact, sends shivers down the spines of otherwise fearless people. Worse, it's no fictional monster, no movie-theater dream. It's real. It's alive! And it could be headed your way.

The beast in question is Kudzu, of course, a vine with broad green leaves and purplish flowers common in the southeastern United States. How common is Kudzu there? Most people consider it a weed, a pest. And no wonder, since Kudzu often smothers other plants under its leaves or chokes them with its vines -- vines, by the way, that can grow as much as a foot in a single day.

Yet the same characteristics for which people now despise Kudzu were initially its attractions. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, the government encouraged farmers in the South to plant Kudzu as a way to control soil erosion. The government even paid workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps to introduce it to barren lands. But then, in 1953, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed Kudzu from its list of permissible cover plants and later, in 1973, declared Kudzu, once and for all, a weed. By that point, though, the damage had been done.

Today Kudzu covers barns, telephone poles, tractors, and trees from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and there's no easy, safe way to contain it, not when a single vine can measure more than a hundred feet and thirty vines can spring from a single root. Still, some people have made peace with the plant. It's a useful fodder for livestock, and humans eat it, too: Kudzu jelly, Kudzu quiche, deep-fried Kudzu leaves. Health-food stores and Asian markets often stock fresh Kudzu root or Kudzu powder, and scientists hope to produce a Kudzu extract to help treat alcoholics. Meanwhile, in Japan, a Kudzu-based sedative for destructive monsters is also rumored to be in the works.