This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Pueraria montana lobata, or as we all know it: Kudzu. Although non-native and highly invasive, Kudzu has become as much a part of the South as barbecue, pecan pie, dirt track racing, and smiling and waving at random strangers. This plant is a great example of too much of a good thing – although it’s a fast-growing pernicious weed that can destroy an entire mature forest by shading it out, it’s also a tremendously useful plant for bushcrafters, herbalists, survivalists, preppers, foragers and homesteaders. Kudzu has something for everyone – it’s edible (and actually pretty tasty), medicinal, and is a great material for making all manner of projects.
Kudzu is a member of the huge and diverse pea family, and looking at it, it’s not hard to see the resemblance. It’s a perennial woody vine that can grow as tall as it can get support – sometimes over a hundred feet when growing up large trees and abandoned structures. (I once saw an enormous 5-story abandoned cotton gin in rural south Georgia completely covered in kudzu. It looked like a green skyscraper, and was the tallest thing for miles around.) Vines are anywhere from the diameter of a pencil to as big around as your wrist. Herbaceous new growth has hairy stems, older, woodier vines have gray-brown smooth bark. Leaves are hand-sized or larger, with alternating lobes. Some leaves are oval (no lobes), others have two lobes and look vaguely like a mitten, while others are three-lobed. Kudzu’s flowers are beautiful – complex, purple-and-white structures with multiple bell-like petals. They give of a strong smell of artificial grape flavor, kind of like grape Jolly Ranchers. The flowers are followed by hairy bean-like seed pods 2”-3” long. Ironically, the seeds, which look like a sure bet of something to eat, are the only part of kudzu that isn’t edible. Kudzu has no deadly mimics, and is most easily identified by its growth habit. It’s not called “The Vine that Ate the South” for nothing. It’s arguably the fastest-growing plant in the Eastern Woodlands, with growth of 18” per day not unheard of with enough water and sunlight in good soil. It’ll quickly cover trees, buildings, parked cars, sleeping dogs, slow-moving livestock… you get the idea. Its only habitat requirements are open ground with plenty of sunlight, and lots of water. Poor soils don’t bother it very much. In the U.S., you’ll find it in a broad swath across the Southeast from Virginia to Texas. It’s a warm-weather plant, so if summers are short and it gets much below zero in the winter, it probably won’t grow.
Kudzu is a great food source, and not just because it’s so abundant. Like any other dark leafy green kudzu is really, really good for you. It’s high in calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and vitamins C and K. Like any other legume, it’s also high in protein. It actually makes excellent livestock forage. Goats, cows, and sheep all love it. It’s great as hay, it just doesn’t lend itself well to mechanized baling. There are plenty of ways to eat it, too: The shoots can be snapped off, cleaned, and cooked like green beans or asparagus. You can steam them, sautee them, fry them, add them to soups… the possibilities are endless. The leaves can be eaten raw (best for younger leaves), cooked as a green, or, our favorite, made into kudzu chips. If you’ve ever made kale chips, the process is exactly the same, except kudzu chips taste better, because they aren’t kale. The flowers are great for jams, jellies, or even wine, and have a pleasant, fruity flavor. The roots are edible as well – when they’re small, they can be roasted over a fire or cut up and boiled, and when they’re larger, they can be pounded into a flour. This is an extremely time and labor intensive process, however, so if you have literally anything else you can use as flour, try it first. Also, as any Southern farmer will tell you, the roots are nigh on to impossible to pry out of the ground. Although you’ll rarely need to utilize kudzu in a true wilderness survival situation as it generally grows near areas inhabited by humans, there’s something to be said for keeping it in mind for a post-disaster situation, whether it’s a short-term incident or a long-term, grid-down scenario. It’s highly abundant, it’s nutritious, and most people won’t consider it as a resource, so it’ll give you a unique advantage in feeding yourself and your family that others won’t have.
Kudzu is also a great medicinal plant. Traditionally, a hot infusion or tea of the fresh or dried leaves has been shown to have the greatest medicinal value, although the flowers are very useful as well. Kudzu tea has been used to treat and prevent heart and circulatory issues such as high blood pressure, angina, and irregular heartbeat. Like many other medicinal herbs in the pea family such as clover, it’s used for treating colds, the flu, bronchitis, and other ailments of that nature. Some claim that it’s a useful treatment for migraines. Modern research does back this up, as compounds in kudzu do increase blood flow to the brain. Perhaps the most interesting use of kudzu is its potential for treating alcohol-related issues. In Asian medicine, kudzu was traditionally used as a hangover treatment, as it helps soothe the symptoms of nausea, headache, soreness, and vomiting. Herbal practitioners also swore by it as a treatment for alcoholism – they believed if someone drank kudzu tea for long enough, they would “lose their taste” for alcohol. Western medicine scoffed at this idea until a study was published that showed evidence of kudzu causing a repression of alcohol consumption in addicted lab rats. Kudzu-based compounds now show strong promise for helping alcoholics break their addiction.
In addition to being edible and medicinal, kudzu is also incredibly useful. For us bushcrafters, it’s a near-inexhaustible supply of natural cordage. It’s great for lashing shelters together, making tools, weaving hammocks, and in a pinch, repairing your gear. It’s not quite as strong as slower-growing, denser natural cordage such as muscadine vines or hickory withies, but it’s plenty good for most applications. It’s easy to collect, and forgiving to use. Kudzu weave baskets are some of the best around, and if you’re looking to try basketweaving, it’s tough to find a better material to experiment with. In the time it takes for you to screw up and try again, the vine probably grew another ten feet.
Kudzu is a fairly recent addition to the Southern landscape. We all know it’s invasive, but how exactly did it get here? Ironically, kudzu is a rare and treasured plant in its native Japan. It’s cultivated as an ornamental vine in gardens and prized for its purple blooms. Most of the Japanese islands are too cold for it to grow well, so it doesn’t come close to reaching the excesses it does here in the U.S. Its rarity and desirability are one of the things that brought it to the U.S. In 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Japanese contingent planted a beautiful ornamental garden that featured kudzu as the centerpiece. It was picked up by botanists and plant collectors, but still didn’t see widespread planting. For most of the next fifty years, kudzu remained an obscure garden curiosity. Over time, its value as a forage crop for animals was realized, and it also began to be used for erosion control. However, it was still something of a rarity until the 1930s. In the New Deal era, the federal government decided to try and kill two birds with one stone and pay poor farmers in the South $8 per acre to plant the vine to combat soil erosion. Now, on paper, this sounds like a fantastic idea. The feds were trying to artificially drive up cotton prices by limiting the number of acres planted. This program was seen as a way to keep farmers on their land while still keeping cotton harvests low. As a legume, kudzu is a nitrogen fixant, so it would help heal the worn-out soil depleted by generations of cotton crops. So in theory, it should have fixed the cotton market, helped impoverished southern farmers, and healed the soil. But like most government programs, this one had far-reaching unintended consequences. Kudzu spread much faster than anyone anticipated, and soon proved impossible to eradicate. In 1953, the feds decided that it probably wasn’t a great idea to subsidize kudzu planting any more, but by then, the so-called “miracle vine” was hopelessly out of control. Since the government is loath to admit when it’s wrong, it took until 1997 for kudzu to officially be listed as a noxious weed by the USDA, but 60 years of uncontrolled growth proved too much to combat, so kudzu is here to stay.
And maybe, that’s not such a bad thing. It really does excel at erosion control, and has stabilized soils that otherwise would have washed away long ago. It’s a great food source for wildlife, livestock, and humans alike. And for us, it’s a valuable medicine and bushcraft plant. So although it’s the vine that ate the south, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.
Anyone else ever eaten kudzu? What did you think? Tell us in the comments!