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Kudzu: Weed or Valuable Plant?
Guest Column by June Hollis

Dateline: 06/26/00

If you live in the South, as I do, no doubt you know about kudzu; however, if you aren't from the South, you may be totally unfamiliar with the plant. Kudzu grows from southern Virginia to eastern Texas, to northern Florida. To us southerners, kudzu is an extremely fast growing weed, a pest, a problem. Growing at the rate of a foot a day during the summer and 60 feet a season and if not controlled, it covers and destroys anything in its path - buildings, fields, machinery, trees, power poles and hills. James Dickey says in his poem "Kudzu"

That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.
In 1876, the United States celebrated our centennial and invited countries to build exhibits at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Japan imported kudzu to landscape the elaborate gardens at the Japanese Pavilion. The large leaves and delightful grape-smelling purple flowers seemed to invite people to plant kudzu in gardens. Little did people then know what a pest it would become, a pest which unlike termites cannot be easily treated. By 1905, it was used to prevent soil erosion and as forage for cows, pigs, and goats. Later it was planted along highways to help prevent erosion there. During the 1930's, the Soil Conservation Service paid hundreds of men to plant kudzu, and in the 1940's, farmers were paid up to $8 an acre to plant kudzu. The United States government stopped advocating the use of kudzu in 1953, and the USDA declared kudzu to be a weed in 1972. Today, kudzu covers 7 million acres of land in the southeast and is spreading at a rate of 120,000 acres a year. In my own state of Mississippi, almost 250,000 acres are covered by kudzu.

Kudzu is a perennial vine of the legume family which means that it is in the pea family. It is tolerant of drought, low soil fertility and various soil acidity. Leaves are fairly large and have three leaflets with or without irregular, shallow lobes. The leaves are hairy on the underside as are the vines which grow from a central root crown. Rhizomes help to increase the fast spreading of the vine. In August and September, the vines which are in the full sun produce a purple flower which in turn produces a bean-like pod. The pods produce few viable seeds; however, because of the fast growth of the vine, seeds are not necessary for the plant to spread. Seeds which fall into rivers or streams may allow the plant to spread to distance locations. In cold weather, the young growth may be killed; however, the older vines resume their growth when warm weather returns.

The native enemies of kudzu were not brought to the United States, and today kudzu causes millions of dollars in damage annually. In Mississippi, it is estimated that the forestry industry loses over $20 million a year because land which could be used for forestry is infested with kudzu. If kudzu is such a problem in the South, why is it not just eradicated? Several factors account for this. Most people simply weed their flower gardens by pulling the weeds up or spraying them. Kudzu roots grow down as deep at 4 meters, thus making it difficult to pull the plant out of the ground. Herbicides work but require repeated applications over an extended time, possibly 4 to 10 years. Aerial spraying is the most effective way to spray because all of the vine can be reached; however, this is expensive. Total eradication is necessary and must be followed up by revegetation of the land. Time and money must be invested to completely get rid of the pesty plant.

One of the most effective methods of eradicating kudzu may be goats. Because goats will eat anything green, they are being used to help control the spread of kudzu in some states. Mississippi has seen growth in the goat industry because of the profit in meat, milk and wool products and has as many as 15,000 goats because of the growing market for the non-traditional meat. They like the green plant, help control it, graze on what might be considered wasteland, and produce a profit. Kudzu has been proved to be a high-quality, high-protein food similar to alfalfa. Goats seem to give some economic value to kudzu.

Because of its nutritional value, kudzu can be fed to most livestock, but there are other uses for the aggressive weed. The vines are an excellent basket making material from which unique baskets are made. Kudzu paper can be also produced. The most interesting products, however, are the food products which can be made and the recipes which have been developed: salad, stewed roots, pickled flowers, jelly, syrup, tea, fried kudzu, quiche, ground kudzu root, casseroles, corn bread, thickening for sauces or apple pie, boiled like turnip greens or spinach, kudzu tofu, cake flour. The list seems endless, and the recipes actually sound worth trying.

Based on 2000-year-old Chinese traditions, medical research is investigating the use of kudzu. Known as ge-gen in Chinese medicine, the earliest known writing about kudzu as a medicine dates back to 100 AD. In the Orient, it is used to treat dysentery, allergies, migraine headaches, diarrhea, fevers, colds, intestinal problems and angina pectoris, to help with the digestion of food and reduce blood pressure. Kudzu has been used successfully for centuries as a treatment for alcoholism, and this is a main focus of modern kudzu medical research today. Experiments with hamsters and rats, show that a compound in kudzu actually causes the repression of alcohol consumption. This research could have great value in the future for the treatment of alcoholism.

Kudzu is an aggressive weed which is next to impossible to get rid of. It can be used as food for both man and animals and to make paper and baskets. More importantly, kudzu shows great potential for medicine. Local geography and interest in every day uses of this plant determines how one views kudzu, whether it is a weed or a plant with medical value; however, most Southerners will probably always say it is a weed, a pest, and a problem, one which is here to stay.

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June Hollis is a high school teacher in Brandon, Mississippi. She has taught history and English since 1965. She is an extremely active member of the Mississippi Geographic Alliance and a participant in the JASON XII expedition to Hawaii. She explored the Amazon rainforest as part of an Earthwatch project and spent the summer of 1998 studying in Eastern Europe on a Fulbright program. June has been married for 33 years and raised 3 sons. She loves to read.

For More Information
Alderman, Derek H. 1998. "A Vine for Postmodern Times: An Update on Kudzu at the End of the 20th Century," Southeastern Geographer 38(2): 167-179.
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