The Kudzu Triangle
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Kudzu Pueraria lobata , or "kuzu" as it is known in Japan, was introduced to the United States in as part of the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. In Japan it is lauded for its many culinary, textile, and medicinal uses; and it gained popularity in the United States as an ornamental shade plant, well received for its fragrant flowers and adaptability.
During the s and s, people all over the South planted kudzu seedlings, available through mail-order catalogs, around their porches and arbors. In addition, the Soil Erosion Service, established in and renamed the Soil Conservation Service in , chose kudzu as the ideal cover crop to prevent erosion of southern lands.
The vine became one of the chief measures for erosion control on the Tennessee Valley Authority projects. However, farmers in the South had their reservations about the difficulty of controlling kudzu and the potential of its overtaking valuable land. By it was estimated that , acres in the Southeast were covered in kudzu; by the acreage covered in Georgia alone had grown to , acres.
Kudzu could grow anywhere, from the lowlands of Georgia and South Carolina to the mountains of western North Carolina. By people had grown irritated with the vine's relentless appetite for more space; as one southerner put it, "It was like discovering Ole Blue was a chicken killer.
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By the estimated area of land covered by kudzu was 85, acres, just 17 percent of the estimated , covered in the years However, kudzu still runs rampant in the forests of the South, including those of North Carolina. The vine invades forests, climbing trees and smothering them by cutting off sunlight.
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Kudzu now grows more prolifically in the Deep South than in any other part of the world, and what was once hailed as an "agricultural miracle" is now more widely considered to be a "green menace. There are still those who praise kudzu for its use in erosion control and as a livestock feed.
Others propose that kudzu be planted in barrels on top of buildings so that the vine can grow down, covering the building and serving as a natural coolant. Health food stores sell kudzu powder imported from Japan for culinary and medicinal use.
Southern Culture on the Skids' The Kudzu Ranch
Researchers at Vanderbilt University are looking into using the vines and leaves as a source of fuel and the roots as a fermentation substrate for the production of baker's yeast and ethanol fuel. Kudzu also gives its names to various pieces of southern culture. It seems that the rats do not develop tolerance to the compound; there is no change in its reduction of alcohol drinking after repeated doses. You will drink less because you have the alcohol that you need. This reward system is complex. When a neuron is stimulated, it releases a neurotransmitter, which then binds to receptors on a second neuron, which in turn sends a chemical message to the next neuron, and so on.
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In the reward pathway of the brain, this process causes feelings of euphoria and pleasure. There is evidence that drinking alcohol causes neurons to release dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters involved in the reward system. Overstreet and Rezvani are working with the three different strains of rat to learn more about how serotonin levels and other factors influence alcohol intake.
The Fawn-Hooded rats and the P-rats have genetic serotonin deficiencies, while the Finnish rats have normal serotonin levels. But the Finnish rats still drink alcohol-much more, in fact, than the Fawn-Hooded rats.
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But the researchers stress that alcoholism is an elusive, complex disease that is influenced by biological, psychosocial, and environmental factors. Overstreet explains that a drug now available to help reduce alcohol craving, Naltrexone, is effective only in conjunction with intensive counseling. He thinks that the same would be true of any drug eventually derived from the herbal compound. Possibly such a drug would be helpful in combination with Naltrexone. Or maybe because of how the herbal compound acts chemically, it may work in a sub-group of alcoholics in which Naltrexone does not.
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In , the university issued a press release stating that two professors of psychiatry had reduced the alcohol intake of alcohol-preferring rats by giving them a compound derived from a mixture of seven Chinese herbs, including kudzu. In the next six months, David Overstreet and Amir Rezvani fielded more than 60 telephone calls, mostly from people who wanted to get some of the mixture for a friend or relative. The idea of using an herbal remedy to help fight alcoholism might sound strange.
But many modern medicines, including aspirin and morphine, were derived from plants or herbal preparations, Rezvani says.