As you drive through Appalachia this summer, you may notice that the beautiful scenery you were just taking in has suddenly been obstructed by vines. It starts as a small section on an old building, starts to work its way up the trees, then covers literally everything you can see on the side of the road. This is kudzu, one of my most and least favorite plants.
Those of you who live where kudzu grows are probably all too familiar with it. You may have spent years trying in vain to cut it back, or spray it with herbicide. The so-called “vine that ate the south” has indeed taken over many communities and countrysides throughout the Southern and Eastern parts of the U.S. But where did it come from, and why is it here now?
In 1876, the Japanese Government installed a beautiful garden in Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition. In this garden, were kudzu vines, which have always grown throughout East Asia. Exposition attendees were immediately captivated by the large, lobed leaves and the sweet-smelling purple flowers, and wanted to have it to decorate their own gardens and porches. This demand led to various kudzu nurseries sprouting up throughout the south, where growing conditions were perfect for the vine. After the Great Depression, the US government was also paying farmers to grow it as a forage for their livestock, since it grew quickly and could thus replenish itself after being grazed. Within a few years, it began to break out of containment, and as it slowly took over the entire Southeastern part of the country, people started to realize what a huge mistake they had made.
Clearly, this plant is a giant pain in the butt, and everyone has just cause to dislike it. So why did I say it’s also one of my favorite plants? Kudzu actually has an astounding potential to be something useful for those who are now plagued by it. For thousands of years, kudzu has been a significant part of East Asian medicine, being used to treat alcoholism, high blood pressure and blood sugar, and menopausal symptoms. American scientists have finally caught wind of this, and have been doing tests and clinical studies for the past few years to determine the concrete health benefits of kudzu.
But even more immediate than its medical potential, kudzu is edible. And it doesn’t taste too bad either! Every part of the plant except the seeds and the seed pods can be eaten. The leaves can be cooked like any other green, though you’ll want to de-vein and blanch the larger ones. The flowers, which smell like grape flavored candy and taste a bit apple-like, can be eaten in salads or used to make jellies and candies. The roots can be eaten like any other root vegetable, and can be cooked in stews as a thickener. The new shoots can also be eaten like green beans or asparagus! All of these uses makes kudzu a treasure trove for any wild food enthusiast. Check out these links for some great recipes:
If you’ve spent any time trying to pull kudzu vines out by hand, you’ll know that the vines are extremely tough and durable. These qualities make them a great weaving material for baskets and furniture! You can work them while they’re green, or you can dry and re-hydrate them as you would any other basket weaving material. You can also process the vines into finer fibers for other crafts.
So next time you’re trying to eradicate your nearest kudzu patch, why not try harvesting it for food or basket weaving instead of spraying it down with glyphosate? It may turn out to be useful for you, and the surrounding plants sure wouldn’t mind being spared the chemical bath.