The Kudzu Plant in America

Native to the Orient, where it's used commercially and aesthetically, the kudzu plant has had a decidedly up and down reputation in the U.S.

| March/April 1979

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.

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