Kudzu—The Weed That Ate the South
Kudzu is a trailing vine that looks like a giant bean. It has three leaflets that are sometimes as much as four inches wide. The purplish pea-like flowers grow in clusters and are very fragrant. They can be sniffed in late summer while driving down the road in areas where it grows. Brown, hairy pods soon follow, each containing three to ten seeds.
Kudzu originated in China and was brought to this country from Japan in the late 1800s. It was originally introduced as an ornamental and forage crop for animals. Farmers were encouraged to plant it to prevent erosion and as a soil stabilizer. It was also widely planted for erosion control by the Civilian Conservation Corps under President Franklin Roosevelt.
Today, kudzu covers much of the southeast, reaching as far north as Pennsylvania and Maryland and west to Texas. It branches out from a single taproot, extending in all directions, growing up to a foot a day. Roots develop at the nodes where the leaves are attached to the stem and new plants are formed. It grows best in well-drained soils but will grow in any disturbed area where it gets an opportunity, such as abandoned fields or lots. Repeated cuttings have proven to eliminate it in some areas.
According to research by several Harvard scientists, kudzu has more value than just food. After kudzu extracts were given to alcoholic hamsters, they voluntarily chose not to drink the alcohol. It was concluded that a compound known as daidzin that was found in kudzu had enabled alcoholic hamsters to withdraw from alcohol. Another study by a psychiatric professor associated with Harvard Medical School conducted a study on humans and found that those who took kudzu drank alcohol more slowly and consumed about half as much alcohol as those who did not take kudzu.
Not only has kudzu invaded fields, but in some cases, it has also invaded kitchens. Grown as a shade vine in the south, it would grow up lattices and entice southern cooks with its fragrant flowers. Kudzu flower jelly, fried leaf chips, and other dishes were created and displayed at kudzu festivals.
Kudzu leaves, roots, and flowers are edible. Starch from the large taproots, which can grow to depths of six feet, can be used as a substitute for cornstarch. Young leaves are edible as a green vegetable and can be used as a spinach substitute. Flowers are used to make jelly.