Sometimes I wonder if those in charge have ever gotten the chance to see the harm they caused by the support or endorsement of certain things. The history of Kudzu in the United States may be one of those times where those in charge couldn’t see the problems in their lifetime, but those who came after might wish their predecessors had never even heard of the plant. Kudzu was first introduced to North America in 1876 in the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. But the most notable promotion of kudzu came in 1884 in the Japanese pavilion at the New Orleans Exposition which led to Kudzu being heavily promoted in the early-1900s. At the time, farmers were having an issue with soil erosion and Kudzu was known to help protect the soil from erosion as well as improve the quality of the soil it grew in. So, the government decided to pay farmers to use the vine for erosion control, which led to an estimated more than a million acres of the vine being planted. The problem of its aggressiveness wasn’t addressed until WELL after the Great Depression, when thousands of acres of kudzu were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps for hillside stabilization projects.
Often demonized as “the vine that ate the South,” Kudzu is one plant that has many uses and benefits. It’s also a great example of why invasive plants aren’t always that bad. Before you jump on my case about ecology and the harm invasives do to natural habitat, etc. I am very aware of the harm this plant can do. Kudzu can easily outcompete native species, and if it ever gets access to a tree canopy, it can devastate habitats by felling trees and eliminating light availability. Though Kudzu may be a famous invasive species it is not, by any means, the most aggressive or dangerous invasive in the South. That is likely the Chinese Privet. Even with Kudzu’s aggressive nature leading to doing some severe habitat damage, it also has some benefits to offer for that same habitat. This fast-growing vine helps to remove petroleum contamination and other toxins, like chromium, from the environment. It also has a preference for land that has been harmed by monocropping, and other places where the ecosystem has been weakened. When it moves into these areas, it helps to replenish, protect, and add biomass to these severely depleted soils. I am, by no means, suggesting that you should go out and plant Kudzu. Ever. But I also don’t believe it to be as terrifying as it’s made out to be.
While this woody vine has become famous for eating the South, it in turn can be eaten. Kudzu is a food crop in its native country of Japan. But here in the US, it’s virtually unused. Some people find this plant to be bitter, oddly textured, and not worth the effort to process. I personally think that if you take the time to learn how it should be prepared, and do it right, it’s a tasty vegetable. So if you’re curious and want to give it a shot, go for it. Kudzu leaves can be eaten as a green. Some people will even eat the smaller, more tender leaves in a salad. However, the leaves have a bit of a toothy, fibrous, quality that doesn’t make for the best salads. I think the leaves are much better cut up into small chunks and cooked as a pot herb. If you’re from the South, that’s what we do to greens of all kinds here. The leaves also work well in place of grape leaves for Dolmades. Just parboil the Kudzu leaves first to make sure they’re tender enough for rolling. The hairy tips of the vines are also edible and can be eaten raw. But the hairy texture can be a bit off putting that way. Instead, try sautéing or grilling them. The heat should diminish the hairiness, though if it’s still an issue for you, you can always peel the hairy bit off before cooking. That extra step does take a bit of effort though. The flowers are also edible and hold up to cooking fairly well. They make an excellent and slightly grapey jam or jelly. If you’re a beekeeper, they also make for some excellent honey. Just make sure you stay on top of your Kudzu population as it can easily overtake your hives. The most well-known part of this plant in the kitchen is the root. The root is not edible raw and is extremely woody, so it takes some processing to make it digestible. However, it is used as a starchy vegetable in a few Chinese and Japanese dishes. The roots also contain a lot of starch which can be extracted and used to thicken soups or sauces, used to make jelly or gelatin-like desserts, noodles, and much more. The process of extraction does take quite a lot of effort, but you can also find it in some grocery stores so you can skip all that hard work and just see for yourself if it’s worth it.
Kudzu is also a great herb to have on your medicine shelf. It’s a great source of minerals, such as iron, sodium, calcium, potassium, copper, magnesium, and manganese as well as containing isoflavones, which act like estrogen in the body. For this reason, it’s often used to treat menopause symptoms and can be a great feminine herb, especially since studies also suggest that these isoflavones may be able to prevent and help treat breast cancer and uterine cancer. Kudzu is also popular for drinking issues. This herb can treat alcoholism and relieve hangover symptoms, such as headaches, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. It’s believed that kudzu can combat drinking addictions by increasing blood flow and making drinkers feel the alcohol effects sooner. This way, drinkers are more likely to drink less and stop drinking earlier. Speaking of increasing blood flow, Kudzu is also a powerful cardiac herb. It helps to increase blood circulation and reduce high blood pressure which then lowers chances of stroke, angina, and even heart attacks. Additionally, kudzu is also used to treat other ailments, such as cold, fever, flu, hay fever, sinus infection, migraine, upset stomach, diarrhea, dysentery, muscle pain, and neck stiffness. It can also treat skin problems, such as itchiness, rash, and psoriasis. Kudzu can also help control blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. There are just so many uses for this amazing herb. And bonus points for it being invasive so we don’t have to worry about over-harvesting!
Speaking of harvesting, let’s cover some basic foraging rules and some cautions when foraging for Kudzu specifically. First and foremost, be careful. You should always be careful when harvesting wild plants. Do your research and determine if the area is regularly treated with pesticides or herbicides. Speaking of chemicals, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re at least 100 yards away from roads and places where vehicles or equipment are stored. Many wild plants readily absorb toxins from the soil and when you cook them, you can easily ingest these chemicals. You should also make sure to truly study how to identify the plant you’re foraging. There are a lot of look-a-likes out there that can be harmful. If you’re not 100% sure of a plant’s ID, don’t consume it! In the case of Kudzu, its leaves could be confused with poison ivy leaves (leaves of 3 leave ‘em be). The easiest way to differentiate both plants is to remember that kudzu is a vine that grows outwards in every direction, while poison ivy is a ground vine that grows vertically to the sky. Kudzu is a climbing, semi-woody, vine that can reach up to 100 feet in length and grows about a foot a day. The stems can reach a diameter of up to 4 inches and some old ‘stumps’ can be nearly 12 inches across. The leaves are alternate and compound, with three broad leaflets up to 4 inches across. Leaflets may be entire or deeply 2-3 lobed and slightly hairy on the margin or underneath. If you’re still not sure, mark the area and come back when the Kudzu should be blooming (late summer to early fall). Kudzu flowers grow in long clusters with the individual flowers growing up to ½ inch long. The purple to pinkish-red flowers smell like artificial grape candy or grape soda.
Scientific Name- Pueraria montana var. lobata
Common Names- Kudzu, Kudzu Vine, The Vine that Ate the South, Mile-a-Minute Vine
Family- Fabaceae (the legume or pea family)
Identification- Semi-woody vine with alternating leaves made of three oval-shaped or lobed leaflets. Young vines and vine tips are hairy. After 3 years it produces purple or red flowers that bloom in clusters and smell like grape candy. The vine grows up to a foot per day and can reach up to 100 ft in length. It flowers in late summer, the seeds pods are brown, hairy, and flattened. These pods contain three to ten seeds.
Summary of Actions- Cardiovascular protective, antiplatlet, antihypertensive, antipyretic, andtidiabetic, antispasmodic, anti-alcoholic, anticancer, antioxidant, antiviral.
Energetics & Flavors- TCM- Sweet, acrid or pungent, and cool.
Parts Used- Whole plant, root, leaf, and flower.
Active Constituents- Arachidic acid, ash, B-sitosterol, calcium, carotene, daidzein, daidzin, eicosanoic acid, formononetin, genistein, hexadecenoic acid, irisolidon, iron, magnesium, p-coumaric acid, phosphorus, potassium, puerarin, quercetin, riboflavin, robinin, silica, tectoridin, tetracosanoid acid.
Edibility- Kudzu leaves, vine tips, flowers, and roots can be eaten. The root should be cooked, the rest is edible raw or cooked. Kudzu vines, seeds, and seed pods are NOT edible. While many people consider this plant to be tasty, many other people consider it to be bitter, fibrous, hairy, and not worth the effort. Starch can be extracted from the roots and used to thicken soups or sauces, used to make jelly or gelatin-like desserts, noodles, and much more.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)- Ge gen (Radix puerariae); sweet, acrid or pungent, cool; associated with the spleen and stomach. Sometimes it is also associated with the lungs and bladder. This herb is used in TCM to dispel wind, release muscles, and clear heat. It nourishes fluids and alleviates thirst. It helps to vent or erupt measles and stop diarrhea. Other traditional TCM uses include hypertension and alcoholism. The flowers are used for drunkenness and as a hangover remedy.
Ayurveda- Vidaari Kanda (Pueraria tuberosa). Similar uses as in TCM.
Recommended Dosage- High to medium dose. Considered safe when consumed as a food.
Decoction: Root 10-20 grams daily with a maximum of 60 grams. Flower 3-12 grams for hangovers and excessive alcohol intake.
When to Harvest- The best time to harvest the shoots is in spring. The young leaves can be harvested anytime. The plant blooms in the late summer and early fall so you should be able to harvest the blossoms July through October. For the roots, the best time to harvest is in fall or early spring but you can dig them up year-round for use.
Other Uses- Kudzu can be used to make soaps, lotions, rope, twine, baskets, wallpaper, paper, fuel, and compost. It can also be baled like hay and used to feed livestock, though it seems goats like it more than other livestock.
Cautions and Contraindications- Kudzu is very safe though it can cause nausea and vomiting when taken at too high of a dose, particularly in individuals with weak digestion.
Herb and Drug Interactions- There may be synergistic effects with insulin and other antidiabetic medications. Kudzu also has antiplatelet effects which could cause synergistic interactions with anticoagulant and antiplatelet medications. As always, check with your doctor and pharmacist before starting any herbal supplements.
I only included a basic introduction to this interesting herb. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram or updates on my adventures in nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and what to see more, Become a Patron!