The Kudzu Plant in America

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
A kudzu leaf and flowers.

Excerpted from The Book of Kudzu by William
Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, copyright © 1977 by the
authors and reprinted with the permission of Autumn Press,
Inc., publisher.


Kudzu (pronounced KUD-zoo in the Deep South and KOOD-zoo
most everywhere else) is a prolific leguminous vine of the
genus Pueraria native to the Orient. The
Japanese call it kuzu (KOO-zoo). Introduced to the
United States in 1876, the kudzu plant now grows more prolifically
throughout the Deep South than in any other part of the
world.

Kudzu’s devotees point out that the plant combines the
virtues of several species: It has long been used for
erosion control, for livestock fodder, as a honey source,
and as an ornamental vine. Moreover, its leguminous roots
host nitrogen-fixing bacteria which enrich the soil by
providing a free and continuous supply of natural
fertilizer. Originally wild, kudzu is unquestionably a
super-plant, for it thrives without fertilizers,
pesticides, irrigation, cultivation, replanting, or even
care. The key question remains, however: “Is kudzu
super-good or super-bad?”

During the warm months, almost anywhere you travel south of
the Mason-Dix-on line or east of Texas, you can see great
billowing waves of kudzu washing over highway embankments
and invading farmlands in a riot of luxuriant foliage. In
its relentless search for more room, kudzu has spread like
wildfire across the landscape and generally proved itself
to be an unstoppable nuisance.

Whereas the Japanese practice a kind of agricultural judo
on kudzu, turning its overflowing energy to their
advantage, American farmers today usually curse and try to
eradicate this hardy perennial. They do not realize that
the “green menace” is, in fact, one of Japan’s most honored
wild plants.

For the family who enjoys foraging for edible wild plants,
or the farmsteader who lives off the land from time to time
in order to make ends meet, the kudzu vine offers its
leaves, shoots, flowers, seeds, and roots for use in a
variety of preparations such as tempura, pressed salads,
sautéed vegetables, or pickles.

For the doctor, healer, or invalid who wishes to rely on
effective traditional remedies, kudzu powder is made into a
smooth and soothing thickened broth called Kudzu Cream (
Kudzu-yu ), which helps to develop an alkaline
constitution. It also provides quick relief from intestinal
and digestive disorders (particularly upset stomach and
acid indigestion), hangover, fever, colds, and a variety of
more serious ailments.

For the rural farm family, kudzu’s leaves and green seeds
serve as a plentiful, easily harvested source of
nutritious, protein-and chlorophyll-rich livestock fodder,
or as an excellent mulch, green manure, or compost base.
And for the beekeeper, kudzu thickets provide a source
of unusually fragrant, flavorful honey.

For the conservationist and aesthete alike, cultivated
kudzu vines cover mile after mile of steep embankments
along roadways and railway lines the entire length of
Japan.

And “kudzu powder” (a literal translation of the Japanese
term kuzu-ko ) is a remarkable starchlike extract
of the kudzu root. (In natural food stores throughout
America, it is sometimes labeled simply “kuzu.” The powder
comes in crumbly white chunks and has been used in Japan
since ancient times as a key ingredient in fine cuisine and
as an unusually effective natural medicine.

As versatile as it is delicious, kudzu powder can be
used–like arrowroot or cornstarch–as a
colloidal thickener in sauces or soups, or as a crispy
coating for deep-fried foods. Like agar or gelatin, it
can also serve as a jelling agent, imparting delicate
texture and prized flavor to numerous treats and desserts.

Now widely available in the West at reasonable prices,
kudzu powder is imported from Japan in large quantities. It
will, we hope, soon be produced in America, since kudzu can
be cultivated in virtually any climate and kudzu powder can
easily be made on a home, community, or commercial scale,
using the roots of locally grown plants.

Kudzu History

The tempestuous history of kudzu in America is so bizarre
that it is sometimes referred to as a “cosmic joke.” Kudzu
was first brought to the United States from Japan in 1876, where it was grown in the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia
Centennial Exposition.

In the first stage of its history in America, from 1876
until 1910, kudzu was used as an ornamental shade plant. It
gained popularity for its decorative dense foliage, which
provided welcome shade on sweltering summer days and could
be used by gardeners to create a shielding background (to
block out the view of neighboring houses) or a lush
tropical effect.

The second stage, from 1910 to 1935, saw the development of
kudzu’s use as livestock pasturage, fodder, and hay. David
Fairchild, who served in Japan as a plant explorer for the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, had noticed that wild kudzu
was used as pasturage, and he started some of the plants in
Washington, D.C., partially to test them for this purpose.

Further preparation for this stage began in 1902 when a
farmer in the Florida panhandle town of Chipley, Mr. C.E.
Pleas, became disappointed with the poor performance of his
ornamental kudzu. He yanked it up and replanted it near a
garbage pile behind his house. Nothing can match the fury
of a spurned kudzu plant, and within two years that pile
and much of the area around it were smothered by the
luxuriant vine and had never looked so good. However, it
was only after Pleas noticed that his chickens, cows,
goats, pigs, and horses all liked to eat the leaves that he
began to have an inkling of the plant’s potential.
Believing that he had stumbled on a discovery that would
usher in a prosperous new era, Pleas set out with messianic
zeal as the first promoter of kudzu cultivation.

As early as 1907, kudzu hay had appeared at an exhibition
in Jamestown, Virginia and by 1917 the Alabama Agricultural
Experiment Station at Auburn had begun to study kudzu’s
fodder value. In 1920 John Rigdon, pioneer conservationist
from Columbus, Georgia and agricultural agent for the
Central of Georgia Railroad, learned of kudzu’s remarkable
growing speed and excellent nutritional value. He convinced
the railroad that the prolific plant, sold as fodder, could
provide them with extra freight to haul. And before long,
the railroad had initiated a vast program to provide free
plants and advice on how to grow kudzu for animal feed.

The third stage of kudzu’s history in America, from 1935 to
1955, saw the plant burst into prominence in soil
conservation programs throughout the South. By 1935 the
South’s soil and agrarian economy were suffering from
terminal malnutrition. The farmers were as poor as
their worn-out land, which had been depleted by decades of
careless and intensive planting in cotton, tobacco, and
corn. Only a miracle, it was believed, could save dear old
dying Dixie.

But the growing number of kudzu crusaders felt they had
just the answer, and careful experiments reconfirmed their
hunch: Not only did kudzu grow on hard, scarred
land devoid of topsoll, it flourished. In fact, it even
revitalized the soil by giving back nitrogen-rich
nutrients. Moreover, its deep roots let it laugh at
drought. The reign of kudzu began in earnest when the
various agricultural agencies that sprang up during FDR’s
New Deal joined forces with the crusaders. In 1933 Congress
established the Soil Erosion Service–which in 1935
became the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)–whose main
function was to keep the South from washing away. Among the
various plants that were tested as potential cover crops,
kudzu looked like the one that could do the job. But the
response of southern farmers was still cool: They were
aware of kudzu’s aggressive growth pattern and feared that
widespread planting might result in its uncontrollable
spread and the loss of entire farms.

Nevertheless, while its initial image was not entirely
favorable, additional experimentation and intensive
promotion changed kudzu’s fortunes. And, by the late 1930’s
the vine had been introduced into every southern state and
was reaching the height of its popularity. In 1939 the
first comprehensive (30-page) booklet about the new plant
was written by R.Y. “Kudzu” Bailey, the SCS regional
agronomist at Spartanburg, South Carolina and one of
kudzu’s greatest proponents.

The fourth stage in kudzu’s tempestuous and comical history
began in about 1955, when the very people who had promoted
the miracle vine so fervently started to become
disenchanted with it. As one southerner wrote: “It was like
discovering Ol’ Blue was a chicken killer.” Kudzu now
turned on its masters. Once declared the savior of the
South, it gradually came to be considered at best a
nuisance, at worst a scourge. In 1976, on the 100th
anniversary of kudzu in America, newspaper headlines boldly
announced: “The South is fighting another war … and
losing once again.”

Why has kudzu spread so rapidly? First, the South’s
combination of a long growing season, a warm climate, and
plentiful rainfall create a uniquely favorable environment
for kudzu’s growth. Second, in America the plant has almost
no natural enemies. (In Japan, by contrast, a less ideal
environment plus insect predators and disease keep the vine
in check.) And finally, the momentum of Its initial
propagation here was hard to slow down.

And why has kudzu declined in favor? Basically because too
much was expected of the plant, and its negative
aspects–initially glossed over–began to stand
out as southern farming moved into the modern era.

The lumber industry and U.S. Forest Service are kudzu’s
strongest critics today because it has been playing havoc
with timber production in the South, especially in
recent years, as more southern acreage was turned to
forests. Kudzu invades whole forests, climbing saplings and
even 100-foot-tall trees, patiently smothering them by
cutting off necessary sunlight with its dense foliage.

Telephone companies reportedly have trouble with kudzu
pulling down poles, and occasionally they have been forced
to run their lines underground. Power companies must spray
the plants at least once a year to prevent them from
sending tentacles sometimes as much as 80 feet up high
voltage towers, where they can short out transmission lines
and transformers, causing expensive damage. Highway
department crews use herbicides and mowers in their daily
skirmishes to try to prevent the plant from covering road
signs and guardrails or running out on shoulders and
bridges: its spread keeps the sun off the pavement and
holds in moisture, which deteriorates concrete. Railroaders
also battle kudzu: They tell of how the vines can grow
across the tracks on grades and be churned into a slimy
mush under a locomotive’s wheels, causing them to slip and
the train to stall.

Farmers dislike kudzu most when it sneaks onto their
property and damages crops and fruit trees, while providing
an unwanted haven for green snakes. It is still widely used
as pasturage for grazing livestock, but care must be taken
to prevent over-grazing, which can eventually kill the
plant.

It was perhaps only natural that as kudzu fell from favor,
it became the brunt of an almost endless stream of southern
humor. Among southern rural folk, it came to be known as
the “mile-a-minute vine” or the “foot-a-night vine.” Kudzu
and bamboo were said to be the only two things that grow so
fast you can measure growth in miles per hour. An Arkansas
farmer once quipped, “When you plant kudzu, drop it and
run.”

Tifton B. Merritt, a southern journalist, gives the
following advice for cultivating kudzu:

Choosing a plot : Although kudzu will grow quite
well on cement, you should select an area having at least a
little dirt.

When to plant : Kudzu should be planted at night
to avoid neighbors seeing you and throwing rocks.

Fertilization : Forty-weight, non-detergent motor
oil applied to the underside of tender leaves prevents
their scraping when kudzu begins its rapid growth.

Mulching : For best results, as soon as the young
shoots begin to appear, mulch heavily with concrete blocks!

Kudzu’s Commercial Uses

In the United States, there are two schools of thought
about what should be done with kudzu. The first school,
comprising most southerners, advocates eradication. The
problem is, nobody has yet found a practical way to stop
it. You can poison the vegetable medusa with any of a
number of newly developed, highly toxic herbicides, but
this method is very expensive and hard on the environment
because repeated applications are required over several years.
The poisons also kill all nearby plants and make the land
unfit for growing other crops for 6 to 12 months; exposed to the elements, the large areas of land on which
no other crops will grow are subject to severe erosion.

The second school feels that we should start using kudzu
creatively instead of complaining about it or trying to
kill it. Granted, kudzu now has an image problem and is
suffering from a bad press, but that can always be changed.

With the rise of modern chemical agriculture and advanced
Western technology, kudzu’s key roles have been replaced by
more up-to-date and convenient equivalents: chemical
fertilizers, soy-and-grain fodders, concrete embankments.
Yet Dr. Jake Tinga, a horticulturist with the University of
Georgia’s Agriculture College Experiment Station, notes:
“With the costs of fossil fuel, fertilizer, irrigation
systems, and other agribusiness necessities steadily going
up and up, farmers may start to reexamine some less
sophisticated, less expensive methods of production. ”

In the same vein, kudzu is beginning to attract interest
among the present generation of Americans interested in
living self-sufficiently, closer to the land, and in greater
harmony with it.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee are
investigating the use of the vines and leaves for fuel and
the use of the root as a fermentation substrate for the
production of both baker’s yeast and ethanol fuel.
Moreover, they have found that the root seems to provide
all the vitamins needed for a very nutritious food and
support for yeast fermentation.
Let us hope that the coming years will mark the inception
of a fifth phase in kudzu’s American odyssey. Already, work
is underway in a number of diverse areas to relate to kudzu
in new and creative ways:

[1] Kudzu powder is now being used in lieu of lower-quality
cooking starches and is featured in some of America’s
finest natural food restaurants. We may soon even witness
the rise of a new southern delicacy, kudzu candy!

[2] Kudzu Root Tea and Kudzu Creams are being used by
naturopaths and appearing in their books on healing.

[3] Organic farmers in northern states are experimenting
with planting kudzu. (In the colder, drier climate growth
can be kept under control.)

[4] Several people have shown interest in starting the
first commercial kudzu shops in the West to supply
high-quality, natural powder and root at domestic prices.

Before long, the South may come to be viewed as a treasure
trove bursting with “white gold” just waiting to be
harvested. When this day arrives, kudzu will have found its
true home in America … this time for real.

Kudzu Recipes

The tender young parts of the kudzu plant make a delicious
vegetable that may be gathered wild for free. (Avoid
gathering the older leaves and shoots, which are generally
quite fibrous.) Wash thoroughly before use, then try
serving them in your favorite salads, soups, sautéed
dishes, and casseroles.

Kudzu Leaves with Sesame Dressing:

Boil young leaves, wrap in a cotton dishcloth, and press
with several pounds of weight for 10 minutes. Dice fine and
dress with a mixture of 2 tablespoons tahini (or substitute
sesame or peanut butter creamed with 1 teaspoon water),
1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar, 1 teaspoon honey, and 1/2
teaspoon salt (or 1 1/2 teaspoons natural soy sauce).

Steamed Roots:

Since ancient times, kudzu
roots have been used in Japan as, an emergency food in
times of famine. Gathered during the fall or winter, when
they are rich in starch, they are cut into cubes, steamed
or boiled, and served seasoned with natural soy sauce,
miso, or salt.

Kudzu Powder:

Kudzu powder may be substituted for flour, arrowroot, or
cornstarch as a thickening agent in most recipes. Use the
following proportions:

1 teaspoon kudzu powder = 3 teaspoons flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kudzu powder = 3 teaspoons arrowroot
4 1/2 teaspoons kudzu powder = 3 teaspoons cornstarch

Acidic liquids such as lemon juice require 10 to 15 percent
more kudzu powder for thickening or jelling than water or
alkaline liquids such as apple juice.

Dissolving Kudzu Powder:

Combine the
powder and cold liquid in a small bowl or cup. Stir well,
then mash any remaining lumps with fingertips. Pour through
a small, fine-mesh strainer into cooking liquid, retrieving
all kudzu from bowl with a rubber spatula. Dip strainer in
cooking liquid to rinse.

Apple Pie with Kudzu-Apple Juice Glaze:

This old-fashioned pie with its opalescent glaze contains
no sweetener, yet has its own delicious natural sweetness
and delicate texture. The glaze also does nicely atop any
of your favorite fruit or vegetable pies (onion, kabocha,
or pumpkin are especially good) as well as tortes and
cheesecakes.

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (sesame) oil
1/3 cup water
1/2 egg white (optional)
4 (pippin) apples, thinly sliced
1 1/3 cups apple juice
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons kudzu powder

Preheat oven to 400° F. Combine flours and salt, mixing
well. Add oil and rub mixture gently between palms to blend
evenly. Gradually add water to form a dough and knead for 2
minutes, or just until smooth. Roll out round on a floured
board and use to line a nine-inch pie plate. Flute edges,
prick bottom with a fork, and brush, if desired, with egg
white. Bake for 30 minutes, or until nicely browned.

While crust is baking, combine apples, 1/3 cup apple juice,
and raisins in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and
simmer for 15 minutes. Mix in 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and
lemon juice, remove from heat, and allow to cool.

While apples are simmering, combine kudzu powder and the
remaining 1 cup apple juice in a small saucepan, stir until
dissolved, and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 1 minute,
or until transparent and nicely thickened.

Spoon cooked apples into baked crust and smooth surface.
Pour kudzu glaze evenly over the top, then allow to cool to
room temperature. Cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled,
topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon.