“The green creeping vine protected the land and kept it from washing away during heavy rains, but when I was a boy I thought the whole world would someday be covered by it, that it would grow as fast as Jack’s beanstalk, and that every person on earth would have to live forever knee-deep in its leaves,” Willie Morris wrote in Good Old Boy.
In the 134 years since its introduction to the United States, kudzu has become an emblem of the South, creeping up trees and telephone poles — over anything in its path, really — growing into eerie shapes that could be green monsters, or simply gentle giants caught sleeping too long.
Kudzu was introduced to America in 1876 at a plant exhibition at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. It came from Japan, where it was prized for its lush foliage and sweet purple flowers.
In Japan, however, there are native insects that feast on kudzu, and keep it from spreading.
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Hindsight is a wonderful thing. In the late 1800s, Southerners planted kudzu to shade their porches.
By the turn of the century, it was being promoted as a forage plant for livestock.
In the 1930s, the federal Soil Erosion Service handed out 85 million kudzu seedlings to Southern landowners.
FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps traveled throughout the South, planting kudzu.
The federal government even paid farmers to plant kudzu.
It grew and it grew, up to a foot a day, up to 100 feet long, with massive roots that could weigh 400 pounds.
There were kudzu festivals, kudzu queens and a Kudzu Club of America that boasted 20,000 members.
Kudzu was king.
And then the rest of the us started to grasp what Willie Morris had. By 1953, the government no longer considered kudzu a “permissible cover plant.” In 1997, Congress placed it on the Federal Noxious Weed list.
Today, an estimated 7 million acres of the South are covered in kudzu. As in most things, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi are the states hardest hit. Kudzu covers a reported 250,000 acres in Alabama.
It’s been found as far north as Connecticut, and as far west as Texas, but it grows best in these parts, where it’s warm.
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There are some 17 species of kudzu in this world, all native to China, Taiwan, Japan or India. The one here is ITALPueraria lobata,UNITAL wild kudzu. It’s a member of the pea family, a legume with hairy vines and clusters of purple flowers that bloom in late summer and smell headily of grapes.
Honey made from bees that have been pollinating in the kudzu can be bluish-purple.
Some folks make jelly from the flowers. It tastes a little like grapes.
KUDZU BLOSSOM JELLY
4 cups kudzu blossoms
4 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 package Sure-Jell pectin
5 cups sugar
Put washed blossoms in a bowl. Pour boiling water over blossoms, stir and set in refrigerator overnight.
Strain and put liquid in medium-size pot. Add lemon juice and pectin. Bring to a full, rolling boil. Add sugar, and then bring to a second rolling boil, stirring constantly. Allow to boil for 2 minutes.
Skim foam, and then pour into sterilized jars and seal. Process jelly in boiling water bath canner for 7 minutes.
(Recipe from Kristi Nix of Clay County).
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You can eat the others parts of kudzu, as well. Alton Brown, in the first season of his TV show ITAL Feasting on Asphalt,UNITAL pulled his motorcycle over to the side of the road and started eating kudzu leaves right off the vine.
He said you can use them like spinach or lettuce.
Just be sure not to pick ones that have been sprayed with weed-killer.
This being the South, folks have been known to deep-fry the leaves.
In Japan, the massive, fleshy roots are eaten steamed or boiled.
Kudzu root is also revered as an herbal cure in Asia. Dried and ground into powder, it’s been used to treat everything from heart disease to muscle aches. The Japanese brew kudzu tea to treat dysentery and fever.
Researchers at Harvard are studying kudzu root as a treatment for alcoholism.
Other scientists are looking at kudzu as an alternative fuel source, like corn or soy: kudzunol.
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Other folks are more artistic in their approach to kudzu. The vines can be woven into baskets. Ruth Duncan of Greenville used to make hundreds of kudzu baskets every year. She once made one big enough to sit in.
Black Belt Treasures, a non-profit folk art and craft gallery in Camden, sells kudzu baskets by Jane Ellen Clark and Andrew and Etta McCall.
Regina Hines of north Georgia has been weaving with native vines for some 30 years, manipulating them into twists and curls. “Sometimes, though,” she says, “kudzu in particular displays its own mind, presenting quite a challenge.”
Hines recently created a table and ottomans using woven kudzu. There are sets on display at the Neiman Marcus in Atlanta and in Charlotte, N.C.
Nancy Basket of South Carolina is such an advocate of kudzu that she has a barn made out of bales of the stuff. She takes kudzu roots and pounds them into pulp to make paper, which she then crafts into collages that depict quilt blocks, or American flags, or scenes of Native American life.
Georgia Godwin, an artist in Mobile, has painted a version of Medusa with kudzu for hair instead of snakes.
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The alternative uses for kudzu don’t stop there. After all, we’ve had more than 100 years to try and figure out what to do with this stuff.
Sheer Pleasures Soapworks in north Alabama makes a handmade soap scented with kudzu blossoms.
A company called Topical Solutions, up in New Jersey, sells a whole line of kudzu body care products: moisturizing cream, soap, lip balm, body butter, hair butter, shampoo, conditioner. The kudzu is picked by family back home in Fayette, then shipped to New Jersey and frozen. The kudzu cream comes from an old family recipe based on pork fat infused with kudzu and other herbs, used to treat dry skin, scars, burns, rashes and insect bites. There’s a booth down at Apple Barrel Antiques in Oxford where you can buy Topical Solutions products.
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Kudzu has inspired many a muse. Anniston writer Annelle Lee has penned a children’s book called ITALKudzu Monster.UNITAL In the 1960s, a B-movie producer came up with the idea for ITALKudzula!,UNITAL about a giant, leafy kudzu monster.
ITALKudzuUNITAL was a comic strip created by the now-unfortunately-deceased Doug Marlette, starring a cast of Southerners led by Kudzu Dubose. A musical based on the comic opened in 1998. At the time, William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told The New York Times, “Deep below the vines of kudzu is a magical world, and the show evokes both the sad and the beautiful parts of that world.”
Filmmaker Max Shores, who works at the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio, made a documentary, ITALThe Amazing Story of Kudzu,UNITAL which aired on public TV in 1996. You can order yourself a copy for $21 at 1-800-463-8825, or www.maxshores.com.
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About the only thing you can’t do with kudzu is get rid of it.
An Alabama Cooperative Extension Service booklet on kudzu devotes 3,305 words to eradication and control methods, all of which can pretty much be summed up in the phrase, “Probably the main reason people have difficulty in controlling kudzu is that they give up too easily.”
It’s been burned, poisoned, hacked up, tilled up.
The city of Chattanooga, Tenn., put out goats and llamas to eat it up – which worked pretty well, actually. Kudzu is great fodder for animals. It’s nutritious and tasty.
Tallahassee, Fla., put out sheep.
There is kudzu growing on at least a million acres of national forest, and the U.S. Forest Service is leading a search for critters that will eat the kudzu, the way they do in Asia, but without eating the rest of the crops.
Till then, we’ll continue to hack away at it little by little, as best we can, making kudzu jelly and eating kudzu leaves, hoping and praying that the green monsters keep their distance from the house.
Contact Lisa Davis at 256-235-3555, firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOURCES: National Park Service, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, Max Shores, The New York Times.