Mention liking kudzu in the South and you'll soon find yourself a social outcast. This Asian import, once touted as great animal fodder and landscape plant has turned into a botanical curse that eats acres of farmland and forests each day.
In 1876 Pueraria montana var lobata was introduced to North America via the Philadelphia Continental Exposition and to the South in 1883 by the New Orleans Exposition. Touted as a great landscape plant and instant shade for arbors and trellises, people were encouraged to plant this fast growing legume to cover their porches and outdoor seating areas. Farmers were also targeted because kudzu is good fodder for grazing animals. When the Dust Bowl disaster hit in the 1930's kudzu was planted to combat soil erosion. Acres and acres were planted all across the affected areas to hopefully hold the thin topsoil in place. Since kudzu withstands drought well, most of these plantings thrived and flourished. It also helped fix nitrogen back in the soil like most legumes do, so it did benefit the ecosystem... until it escaped. Once it was on its own, it reared its ugly invasive head and began to devour forests and farmland at an alarming rate.
Since this aggressive vine can grow up to a foot each day and root from any leaf node, it quickly ran rampant wherever it was allowed to spread. Fast-growing kudzu smothers anything in its path. It grows to the top of the tree canopy and blocks sunlight from anything underneath, killing forests and encroaching on farmland. It quickly turns abandoned cars, old barns and houses into ghostly shapes best described in a horror movie. Chemical herbicides do it very little damage and most insects that find it tasty can't keep up with the galloping growth. It scrambles up power lines and weighs them down with masses of greenery that pose a problem during storms. Once it has a root hold, it is hard to eradicate. The best way would be to mow it close to the ground every few weeks until the roots run out of energy, but since some of the tuberous roots are the size of a 8 year old, that could take awhile. Grazing sheep and goats can eat copious amounts of kudzu, cattle browse it as well and it has as much usable nutrition as alfalfa, but if it is growing in an inconvenient spot multiple herbicide treatments may be the only answer.
While kudzu is designated an invasive and noxious species in many parts of North America, surprisingly it does have some beneficial uses. Chinese medicine has used kudzu for a couple thousand years, treating everything from stomach cramps and heart ailments to alcoholism. In fact, modern medicine has verified that people treated with kudzu extract do drink less than those who have not been treated, but it does nothing to stop the craving. It has been found to contain an estrogen-like compound that researchers are looking into for a safer hormone replacement therapy for women and there's also a treatment being sold that supposedly dissolves fat in the buttocks, but that seems to be simply a fad treatment that has no basis in science.
Kudzu is also quite edible for humans. The leaves and young shoots can be eaten raw, used in stir-frys and quiches (just like spinach) and the pretty flowers (which smell exactly like grape Kool-Aid) are often boiled for syrup to make jelly and wine. Most people recommend blanching the leaves in boiling water before using to remove the fuzzy hairs that some people find annoying though. The roots have a high starch, iron and fiber content and dishes using kudzu starch are often offered in Asian restaurants prepared in a number of ways. Artists use the vines to make attractive baskets and there's a natural yellow dye to be had from the leaves too.
While kudzu seems to be a useful plant, don't get too cozy with it. It can race out of control in just a short period of time and you'll be years fighting the mess. If kudzu grows in your neighborhood, there's sure to be someone willing to part with some. Harvest your kudzu from these established areas and if you are consuming it, take care to avoid stands that have been contaminated with herbicides, pesticides and automobile exhaust. As with any new food, try only a little to make sure there are no allergies or adverse effects.
Parts of North America will be fighting the Kudzu War for generations to come as it doesn't seem to be on the losing end of the battle. Please remember to take note of any potential problems when introducing a new plant to your garden and be aware that not every garden center will heed invasive plant warnings. Just because you see it for sale, doesn't mean that you're purchasing a plant allowed in your region.