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Using Kudzu as a Renewable Resource
What is Kudzu?
Kudzu (also called Japanese Arrowroot though it is no relation to arrowroot) is any of a variety of plants in the genus Pueraria in the pea family, Fabaseae. These various varieties are all perennial vines native to Asia and are considered noxious weeds in much of the rest of the world.
The vines grow so quickly that kudzu is highly invasive in warm climates. Multiple runners spread in all directions, each growing about one foot per day. The vines climb over trees and shrubs competing for sunlight. Kudzu kills many native plants by heavily shading them with a thick canopy of large leaves. The vine wreaks damage on infrastructure and property.
A Timeline for Kudzu in the United States
- 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia introduces kudzu to the US. Countries from all over the world celebrate the 100th birthday of the U.S by showcasing exhibits. The Japanese government created a garden of their native plants. The velvety leaves and fragrant magenta blooms of the kudzu vine delighted the American gardeners in attendance.
- 1883 the New Orleans Exposition introduces the vine to the US Southeast,
- From 1883 to 1953 The US government and gardening enthusiasts promote kudzu as an ornamental plant perfect for shading Southern porches.
- Early half of the 20th century The US raises kudzu as a high protein content feed for cattle and promotes it as a miracle groundcover effective against soil erosion.
- By 1946 3 million acres of kudzu flourish through government aided distribution of 85 million seedling and government funded planting of kudzu which paid planters nearly twenty dollars per hectare.
- 1953 the USDA withdraws kudzu from its list of suggested groundcovers.
- 1970 the USDA lists Kudzu as a weed.
- 1997 kudzu enters the "Federal Noxious Weed List."
- Today Kudzu covers 7.5 million acres, many in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, but reaching as far North as Ontario and as far west as Texas.
How to Eradicate or Control Kudzu
If you find kudzu on your property, please don't spend your money on environmentally unfriendly poisons trying to get rid of it. Herbicide won't budge it.
Even the most effective herbicides currently on the market can take up to ten years of repeated usage to kill a single kudzu plant. Considering the rate at which the plants spread, herbicide isn't a sane option. Plus, using herbicide takes away a much more environmentally friendly option that actually does work- eating it.
Instead of trying to poison the plant, enjoy kudzu leaves as nutritious, delicious, free salads and stew greens. If vegetables really aren't your favorite food group, get some good temporary fencing and goats. Let the goats eat your kudzu down to the ground for you. You can earn extra cash selling cheese and goatsmilk, then resell the goats when the kudzu finally stops trying to resurrect itself.
After a few times of the goats repeatedly grazing the plant back to nothing but a woody stem, the root system depletes the sufficient reserve energy required to produce new leaves. At this point, the whole plant dies. If kudzu is your resident vampire, then goats are the equivalent letting in the sunlight.
Kudzu as a Food Source
For thousands of years, kudzu, has been an important source of food in Asia. Parts of the kudzu plant that are edible are:
- flower blossoms
- vine tips
To harvest kudzu for food, take a buddy with you for safety. This person can wait in the car but will be your emergency back-up should you take a tumble or suffer a snakebite. Dress appropriately and go prepared with snipping and digging tools and plenty of unscented garbage bags that you can tie up your cuttings in for transport and reuse for garbage later.
Wear long sleeves and jeans, heavy socks, sturdy gloves, rugged boots with leg protection and good traction. Tuck in all your clothing and wear a repellant to keep off bugs and snakes.
Walk softly. Kudzu fields can hide ditches, holes, rocks, any kind of sharp debris, even rusty cars and abandon houses.
If the property is owned by someone else, ask permission first. Almost no one will mind you removing some of their kudzu for them. They will likely be grateful. Do let them know that they can eat it, too.
Select kudzu plants that are not so near to a highway that they are contaminated by road dust and automobile exhaust fumes. Choose only healthy, happy looking kudzu that has not been sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, or other chemicals.
Avoid insects, spiders, snakes and other animals that may be living in or feeding on kudzu patches. Also beware poison ivy and poison oak, which both can resemble kudzu, and may be growing alongside or even entangling with it. When in doubt, just remember that if the entire vine and leaves aren't covered in fuzz, then it isn't kudzu.
Throughout the growing season, starting in early spring, harvest the very ends of established kudzu vines where new growth produces young shoots, called runners, and small tender leaves. The young growth will feel tender enough to be eaten raw in salads, and is.
Wash kudzu thoroughly in cool water. I soak mine first in my yard in bins so anything still in it has a sporting chance to swim/crawl/slither/fly away. Then I bring it in and soak in a salted water bath for 20 minutes or so. Then I drain and rinse. Feel free to do this all over again for good measure until you are sure it is clean. I use a salad spinner which helps dry it. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for a day or two in an airtight container.
Top Five Reasons to Eat Kudzu
- It is an invasive species not native to the US that causes environmental and economic damage to the US
- Kudzu has good nutritional value
- It is free
- It tastes delicious
- No reason not to eat it
Flowers can be used raw in salads or to decorate cupcakes, and other desserts. They can be candied, pickled, battered and deep fried, and used to make excellent jelly or pancake syrup. They also can be brewed into a pleasantly fruity tea.
Vine tips and leaves are good dietary sources of fiber and iron. Vine tips can be used like asparagus. They can be chopped into salsa and added into soups. casseroles, and quiche.
The youngest leaves are great in salads and on sandwiches. Mid-size leaves can be steamed like kale and stuffed like cabbage or grape leaves. Older leaves can be fried crispy and eaten like potato chips or used as taco shells or spring roll wraps. They also can be brewed into a smooth, mellow herbal tea.
Kudzu has soft fuzz not unlike peaches or okra. If you find the texture of the fuzz too off-putting to eat raw, you can blanche the leaves quickly in boiling water. This will make them smooth and ready for use in a salad or in a bacon, kudzu, and tomato sandwich.
Kudzu roots are a versatile starch. They are high in fiber, protein, and vitamins A and D.
Small roots can be baked, roasted, mashed, or fried like sweet potatoes, or any other root vegetable. The older, larger roots are woodier. They need to be dehydrated and pulverized into kudzu root powder before they are useful in cooking.
Kudzu root powder is a major export for Japan and Korea. It can thicken soups and sauces or serve as a vegan substitute for gelatin in aspics and in candy-making. The powder also can be used to make a wonderfully crispy, tempura-like, deep-fry batter.
Crafting and Industrial Uses for Kudzu
A kudzu seed has an outer coat that is extremely hard. So much so that the seeds are nearly unviable for spreading the plant. Cuttings and vine itself do that proficiently.
The seeds are perfect for drilling and stringing as beads though! They also can be used in bean bag furniture, stuffed animals, eye pillows, mosaics, and other crafts. Plant fibers from the vines can be made into linen-like fabrics, rope, baskets, wicker furniture, floor and wall coverings, and all manner of paper products.
In agriculture, the plants make excellent grazing to raise cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Kudzu can be turned into an especially nutritious high-protein hay for winter feed.
Young kudzu root can be brewed into beer or used for producing ethanol for cars. Unlike corn and grains, kudzu does not require care, watering, and fertilizer to grow, nor is it already an important food crop for humans in North America.
Have you ever bought anything made out of kudzu?
Hear What Some Local Experts Have to Say About Kudzu
Our Future with Kudzu
Despite our best efforts over the last sixty years, Kudzu is probably here in the United States to stay. Instead of denying that reality, we should turn our attention to environmentally sound efforts of control. At the same time, we can't afford to continue to neglect the opportunities that the kudzu invasion presents to us. We should try to find as many ways possible to use this ever-renewing resource for the good of us all.