Kudzu as a Renewable Resource: History, Nutrition, & Other Uses
What is Kudzu?
Kudzu, also called the Japanese arrowroot (though it is no relation to Maranta arundinacea, the traditional arrowroot) is any of a variety of plants in the genus Pueraria of the pea family Fabaseae. These varieties are all perennial vines native to Asia and are considered noxious weeds in much of the rest of the world.
Kudzu vines grow so quickly that it is highly invasive in warm climates. The plant has multiple runners that spread in all directions, each growing about one foot per day. The vines climb up and 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—The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia introduced kudzu to the US. Countries from all over the world celebrated 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 introduced the flowering vine to the Southeastern US.
- From 1883 to 1953—The US government and private gardening enthusiasts promoted kudzu as an ornamental plant perfect for shading Southern porches.
- Early half of the 20th century—The US raised kudzu as a high in protein feed for cattle and promoted it as a miracle ground cover effective against soil erosion.
- By 1946—3 million acres of kudzu flourished through government-aided distribution of 85 million seedlings and government funding which paid planters nearly twenty dollars per hectare.
- 1953—The USDA withdrew kudzu from its list of suggested ground covers.
- 1970—The USDA listed kudzu as a weed.
- 1997—Kudzu entered the Federal Noxious Weed List.
- Today—Kudzu covers 7.5 million acres, many in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Wild kudzu reaches as far north as Ontario and as far west as Texas.
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How to Eradicate or Control Kudzu
If you find this plant on your property, please don't spend your money on environmentally unfriendly poisons trying to get rid of it. The most brutal commercial herbicide won't budge it.
Even the most effective one currently on the market can take up to 10 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 goat's milk, then resell the goats when the kudzu finally stops trying to resurrect itself.
After a few times of the goats grazing the plant back to its 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.
How to Harvest Kudzu as a Food Source
For thousands of years, kudzu has been an important source of food in Asia. The edible parts of the plant are its leaves, flower blossoms, vine tips, and roots.
Use these 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.
- Bring plenty of unscented garbage bags to tie and transport cuttings inside. You can reuse the bags 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 peak growing season, starting in early spring, harvest the very ends of established kudzu vines where new growth produces young shoots, called runners, and small leaves. The young growth will feel tender enough to be eaten raw in salads, and is. Depending on what you are going to do with it, you may want flowers, and medium and larger leaves too. I keep all that separate in different bags. It saves having to sort it out later.
How to Cook and Eat Kudzu
- First, wash kudzu thoroughly in cool water. I soak mine first in my yard in bins, so anything still living in it has a sporting chance to swim, crawl, slither, or fly away.
- Then, I bring it in and soak it in a salted water bath for 20 minutes or so. Feel free to do this step all over again for good measure until you feel sure the kudzu is clean enough to eat.
- Drain and rinse.
- At this point, I use a salad spinner which helps to dry it off quickly. Use the clean kudzu immediately or store some in the refrigerator in an airtight container for a day or two.
If you have more than you can eat in that time, you can stew it and freeze it, liquid and all, for use when you next make a soup, stew, or big pot of beans. You can also spread it on a sheet pan, and dry it on a low oven setting for about 20 minutes to make an herbal tea.
Why Eat Kudzu?
Kudzu is not native to this country and causes environmental and economic damage to the US. Kudzu has good nutritional value.
Kudzu is free. It tastes delicious. There are no good reasons not to eat it!
Kudzu Uses and Nutritional Value
Flowers can be used raw in salads or to decorate cupcakes and other desserts. They can also be candied, pickled, battered, deep fried, or used to make excellent jelly and pancake syrup. Brew them fresh or dried into a pleasantly fruity tea.
Vine tips and leaves are good sources of fiber and iron. Vine tips can be served like asparagus or chopped into salsa, 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 deep fried crispy and eaten like potato chips or fried as taco shells or spring roll/egg roll wraps. Brew the fresh or dried leaves for mellow herbal tea.
Kudzu is covered in soft fuzz not unlike peaches or okra. If you find the texture of the fuzz too off-putting, blanche the leaves quickly in boiling water. This will make them smooth and ready for use in a salad or a bacon, kudzu, and tomato sandwich.
Kudzu roots are a versatile starch. They are high in fiber, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A and D.
Small roots can be baked, roasted, mashed, or fried soft like french fries or crispy like potato chips. 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 thickens soups and sauces and serves as a vegan substitute for gelatin in aspics and in candy-making. Use the powder to make wonderfully crispy tempura batter, great for deep-frying anything including small root slices, shoots, and flowers.
What Are the Crafting and Industrial Uses for Kudzu?
A kudzu seed has an outer coat that is extremely hard, making the seeds nearly unviable for spreading the plant. Cuttings and vines 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, chickens, ducks, rabbits, hogs, and goats. Kudzu can be turned into an especially nutritious high-protein hay excellent for winter feed.
Young kudzu roots can be brewed into beer or used for producing ethanol for cars. Unlike corn and grains, kudzu does not require care, watering, or fertilizer to grow, nor is it already an important food crop for humans in North America.
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.