18 December 2013
A Few of My Favorite Things: K is for Kudzu
I know, it’s strange to list one of the greatest scourges of the southern landscape as a “favorite” thing, but it’s an iconic reminder of home. In October 2011, I traveled to Atlanta, GA to take a professional seminar. It was the first time I’d been back in the South since 2008. The conference center was nestled next to some woods along the campus of Emory University, and had a balcony just outside the classroom we were in. Stepping out onto the balcony during a morning break, smelling the crisp, just-starting-to-chill fall air, the still-green deciduous trees, the rich, organic earth, I was caught off guard by how forcefully I was transported home! Don’t get me wrong: I love the Pacific Northwest. I love the life I’ve made here and the native-Oregonian love of my life I found last spring, and wouldn’t trade a thing; but I’m a southern boy, and the temperate, relatively dry South will always be “home” over the Pacific North Wet.
Anyone who has traveled the highways and byways of the south has seen areas, sometimes whole fields and forests, overgrown with a thick layer of green, broad-leafed vines. Frequently, familiar shapes can be seen lurking beneath the mat of vegetation: an old tractor; an outhouse; the outline of a small, slow moving animal. It grows upwards of a foot a day. Its planting instructions are “drop it and run.” Its runners can regrow as long as any part of the “root crown” remains intact, and its hard coated seeds can remain dormant for years. It considers trimming a form of propagation, sneers at most herbicides, weathers most burnings, and will probably provide shelter for the cockroaches after the nuclear apocalypse.
So how did this aggressive, noxious, some would say useless plant ever get a foothold in the non-native US? It was introduced from Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as an erosion control measure, and boy, does it take control!
Not everyone thinks it’s useless, however. It has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 2,000 years. It is said to be useful for treating migraines and cluster headaches, tinnitus, and vertigo. It was once touted as a hangover remedy, but a 2007 study largely discredited that notion. It’s a legume (bean), and contains food starch, which may make it useful as a substitute for cornstarch.
It’s considered an invasive weed and a master at competitive interference, choking the life out of native flowers, shrubs, and even large trees. But it’s not completely evil. It has a deep taproot which draws minerals into the topsoil, and increases nitrogen levels. It can be used for forage, particularly for goats, as it has a 15-18% crude protein content and 60% digestible nutrient value. It may also be useful in the production of cellulose ethanol. Its hemp-like fibers can be used to make paper, baskets, and clothing.
So here’s to you, Kudzu! May you… wait, hang on, something’s tuggin at my ankle…