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Rooting out the purplish, yellow perils

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — A certain plant of the pea family has been appreciated in Japan — poetically, dietarily and medicinally — since ancient times. So, in the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry, the “Man’yoshu,” it is used as an epithet for “without interruption,” “for a long time” and so forth, because its most impressive attribute is “vitality,” as a photo-packed Japanese Web site for “seasonal flowers” (kisetsu no hana) puts it. Its vines grow not just fast but also unendingly.

For example, in the early eighth century, when Prince Yamasaki wrote an elegy upon Prince Ishida’s death, he referred to the plant to lament, “I had expected to come to visit you forever and ever.”

Similarly, Lady Sakanoue cited the plant in replying to a man who had sent her a poem saying days had passed without his seeing her. In her poem, she noted she had wondered if something had happened to him because his messenger who used to come “without interruption” had “faltered.”

The autumnal coloration of the plant didn’t go unnoticed either. An anonymous poet included in the anthology has left us a poem saying he noticed the plant turning color after “the geese honking sounded cold” to him.

Later, as poets developed more elaborate conventions, it was the underside of its leaf — “densely whitish pubescent” (botanical dictionary) — fluttering in the wind that attracted their attention.

The luxurious vitality of the plant did not put off the haiku poets of the Edo Period. Kagami Shiko (1665-1731), for example, named his treatise on poetics of the Basho School in a way that suggested a pine grove covered with that plant.

The plant puts on reddish purple, butterfly-shaped flowers in the fall. Ishihara Atsushi (1881-1947), the theoretical physicist who studied with Einstein, wrote a tanka describing the sadness he felt looking for those flowers as he took a morning walk “in a faint mist, along a vague trail.” He had been forced out of his university as a result of an affair of the heart with a young woman poet.

The vines of the plant are so packed with fiber you can make cloth from them, as they do in Kakegawa City, Shizuoka. Its roots are so rich with starch that various cakes are made from them. The hot drink made with it can work against cold, too. And, yes, the plant is among the aki no nanakusa, “seven grasses of autumn” — wildflowers thought to represent that season.

By now, you may have guessed which plant I’m talking about. It’s kuzu or, in its Anglicized spelling, kudzu (Pueraria lobata). Yes, the very scourge of the American South, the nemesis of the horticulturalists in the ever widening regions of the United States as the earth warms, something no gardener in her right mind wants to see in her backyard. And all that because the U.S. government once decided to spread the gospel of kudzu, and then changed its mind.

I had such thoughts when the summer issue of Nature Conservancy arrived — along with its New York supplement — blaring “Declaring War on Invasives,” with talk of “invaders at the gate” of New York. So, the entity whose aim I had taken to be to “conserve” as much of “nature” from development and other forms of human destruction was also engaged in war — to destroy plants and animals already in this country or fight off those trying to come to it.

I have always thought America’s naked hostility toward “alien species” puerile, but I find the Nature Conservancy’s talk of war and invasion at this time simply mindless. This country is about to pulverize a country it assaulted without provocation four years ago. At the same time, much condemnation is going around toward the people who want or need to come to this country, the so-called nation of immigrants.

So, Scott McMillion, reporting on the “war on weeds” in Hells Canyon, between Oregon and Idaho, gleefully talks about the deployment of poisons and fire, bioweapons, search-and-destroy missions, etc., happily telling us, besides, that the team engaged in it is called SWAT. In this case it stands for “strategic weed action team,” not, thank goodness, “special weapons and tactics.” The targeted weed? Yellow star thistles.

The arrival of these thistles on this continent is as old and, shall we say, as innocuous, as that of kudzu. They came to California during the Gold Rush with clover seed or alfalfa imported from Mediterranean countries, McMillion tells us. Kudzu happened to adorn the Japanese pavilion during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Unlike kudzu, yellow star thistles were never apparently promoted by the U.S. government as beneficial to Americans at any time. No matter, they both ended up on the government’s lists of “noxious and nuisance plants,” “invasives” and such.

The New York supplement of Nature Conservancy at least remembers to tell us: “Beginning with the first colonist that set foot in America, human development has drastically changed the plant communities in New York and across the country.” That is Euro-centric, but it is a reminder that biospheric change, man-made or otherwise, is nothing new. As far as homo sapiens goes, you can readily trace it to those people who migrated from Asia to this continent many thousands of years ago. When it comes to the migration of flora and fauna on their own, the transformations have been going on since time immemorial.

What’s basically unsettling about this talk of war, threat, invasion, SWAT and so forth in relation to certain plants and animals (mostly insects now because obviously no big mammals come here to roam) is the sheer willfulness of it all. One plant the New York supplement calls a “threat” is purple loosestrife — a plant introduced to add “a welcome burst of color” to the garden, then found undesirable. I remember someone saying all the brouhaha about alien species is undemocratic. That branding, too, is apt, especially in the context of the latest vituperation against immigrants.

Kudzu, fortunately, has not been a story of total betrayal. People have found uses for the plant other than that of preventing soil erosion, the Web site “The Amazing Story of Kudzu” reports. Some make quiche, syrup and a range of other dishes from it. Some make baskets and paper. Some even raise Angora goats on the plant — reminding us that one of the Chinese names for kudzu is luhuo, “deer peas.”