‘Flashback’ Lecture Notes: How Gypsy Moths and Kudzu Took Over America - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because invasions come in many forms, and some are self-inflicted.

By Sean Braswell

In episode seven of Flashback, OZY’s chart-topping history podcast, we hear a remarkable tale of twin invasions: one by vine (kudzu) and one by caterpillar (the gypsy moth).

A well-intentioned policy intervention during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression and an unhappy accident in a Massachusetts garden are responsible for two fast-spreading ecological pests, kudzu and the gypsy moth. Today, kudzu has become the poster child of invasive species and gypsy moths continue their march across North America.

This week on Flashback, we explore some of the dangerous consequences of ill-advised ecological introductions. You can listen here, and then enjoy digging deeper into the story in my Lecture Notes below.

How Kudzu Grew … and Grew

Kudzu’s journey from world’s fair exhibit to ornamental vine to soil erosion measure to invasive species and beyond, including its role in modern medicine, is one of the most incredible stories of unintended ecological consequences. If you want to learn even more about the vine’s colorful past and future, check out The Amazing Story of Kudzu, a 1996 documentary by filmmaker Max Shores.

Kudzu’s Chief Evangelist

Talk about a grass roots movement. Millions of kudzu seedlings were planted as a federally sponsored soil erosion measure in the Dust Bowl, and some historians believe this decision was strongly influenced by the advocacy of a popular radio host and all-around character named Channing Cope. Bill Finch, a historian, horticulturalist and the principal conservation adviser for the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, told me more about Cope’s kudzu evangelism and his promise that the vine would make barren Southern farms “live again.”

Eating the Vine that Ate the South

It can be easy to get hung up on the negative effects of something as invasive as kudzu, often labeled “the vine that ate the South.” But the vine actually has a number of other uses, including culinary ones. Kudzu leaves can be eaten like spinach, cooked or raw, in quiches, soups and salads. If you’re looking to add some variety to your diet or personally dispose of a backyard pest, here are some ideas from my local PBS station in North Carolina, UNC-TV. 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Speaking of hunger, since 1970, the gypsy moth caterpillar has defoliated more than 80 million acres in the United States. These insects can decimate trees and foliage during the summer months and have spread slowly southward from their origin in the Northeastern U.S. If you haven’t encountered these creatures yourself, you can get a sense of what such a caterpillar plague looks, and feels, like by watching this 2007 CBS News feature.

The Astronomer Who Unleashed a Terrestrial Nightmare

If French Renaissance man Étienne Léopold Trouvelot had not become infamous as the man who introduced the gypsy moth into North America, he would most likely be famous as a talented astronomer whose exquisite astronomical illustrations — which, like kudzu, were displayed at the 1876 world’s fair —are truly museumworthy. Those illustrations have been digitized by the New York Public Library, and Maria Popova has assembled a collection of them you can check out on Brain Pickings.

The Man Who Loved Birds and the Bard a Bit Too Much

The gypsy moth was just one foreign species introduced into North America as part of the “acclimatization” fad of the 19th century. One winter day in 1890, a wealthy New York pharmacist named Eugene Schieffelin, whose personal mission was to introduce every avian species mentioned in Shakespeare into the U.S., released approximately 60 starlings into Central Park, hoping they would go forth and multiply. Boy, did they ever. An estimated 200 million starlings live in the U.S. today, and they are responsible for everything from crop damage to major aviation disasters. You can read more about this unfortunate unintended consequence on OZY.

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