Kudzu—the Amazing Nuisance

Introduction

Driving around the western part of North Carolina, one sees a lot of incredible scenery. After rain showers, when the clouds are clearing the peaks and the sun is pulling the moisture up and burning it off the air is scrubbed clean, there is freshness and energy flowing. At night, the stars shine, sometimes the moon is so full and bright a person can read a book without any extra light, even a candle. The same reader, if he is by a lake, will hear birds singing and the buzzing and sometimes maniacal sounds of insects. He may hear a fish breaching to catch that same bug. The smell of the woods will fill his senses. In the spring, the sweet smell of honeysuckle may cause happy memories of springs gone by to fill his smile.

Yet, driving on the highway the driver can see all the sights and even smell the sweet odor of the season. There is one more benefit to driving along the highways and mountain roads. Some may not call it a benefit; as a matter of fact many call it a bane or “The plant that ate the South.” Kudzu is what he is looking at. The stuff that covers everything, and I mean everything, weeds, grass, shrubs, small trees, large tress, farm houses, cars, I have even seen old fire trucks taken by kudzu. In other words, if kudzu and something else are in the same field, the kudzu will cover it in a blanket of green.

A Little History

Way back in another time when electronics and the like did not rule the world, people actually did stuff outside like farming and even raising cattle, sheep and goats. In order to have areas large enough to accommodate the needs of these intrepid farmers large swaths of land were cleared. Fields and even the sides of mountains fell to man’s need. When the rain came dirt would runoff into rivers causing all sorts of unexpected environmental consequences.

A solution was sought; various grasses were tried but it seems nothing was adequate to the task. Finally, someone imported and replanted an oriental legume having the reputation for doing precisely what was needed. Voile’! A solution was found!

Over the next few years the legume was planted successfully and extensively throughout the South. Too successfully, according to Eryn Brown. In her article, Kudzu Linked to Poor Air Quality; A Study Connects the Invasive Plant to Production of Ozone, a Component of Smog, she states that it is estimated that over 7 million acres of the stuff blankets the South. Kudzu is a legume which has starchy roots that contribute to its incredible tenacity. As a legume it turns nitrogen from the local atmosphere and spreads it around the soil in the immediate area. This is a good thing, according to a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, Jonathan Hickman, but at certain concentrations the nitrogen can combine with gases known as volatile organic compounds, creating ozone.

Removal

We have seen that kudzu will cover a field in no time at all. It also has the ability to regenerate at an incredible rate. As a legume, it helps to create ozone…so does it have any positive qualities? Well yes it does, as a legume it puts nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen, which helps to fertilize the soil, and helps future crops. It is a good dirt stabilizer with its substantial root structure. There are other, more profound uses for kudzu, but let’s talk about its removal first.

How does one remove such a tenacious plant, one that grows in very hard to get at places and can grow as much as six and a half feet in one week? Andrew C. Revkin talks about mob grazing. No, not going out with a bunch of people and looking for a McDonald’s. The technique uses sheep or goats in kudzu infested areas to graze it clean. This takes care of two problems, the first being what to feed the animals, (and by the way there is a cottage industry growing in California that charges a fee to over-graze fields), this technique clears the field to be used for other agricultural purposes. Another way to harvest the crop would be for former tobacco farmers to allow their field to be over taken by kudzu and grow this renewable crop. Again this solves some issues concerning both health and the economy.

Here are some Medicinal Uses

But why eradicate the plant? There are innovative ways to utilize this renewable and prolific resource. It has medicinal uses such as a relief from menstrual discomfort, it aids in the fight against the abuse of alcohol. Kudzu has polyphones which may help to provide nontraditional relief from hypertension. According to Shari Roan, a noted journalist and Alzheimer’s writer in her article in, CAPSULE; A Use for Kudzu, it is a well tolerated food additive to help with hypertension. In traditional Chinese culture Kudzu has it has been used to alleviate headaches and fever. It helps to mitigate allergy symptoms, angina and diarrhea. There are those that see kudzu as a food additive; it can be used as a soup thickener for diabetics. The powder can already be bought in health food stores.

Extracts from kudzu have been shown to mitigate aging symptoms by inhibiting the formation of Advanced Glycation End products. Diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, arthritis and heart disease are all maladies that can be relieved with the use of treated kudzu. According to Gillian McKeith, osoflavinoids can help with bone density issues. There is data showing that kudzu can help with fibrosis of the liver, thus helping with liver regeneration due to the overuse of alcohol.

Kudzu: a Fuel Source

Kudzu as a fuel source? Come on now, it’s a weed that is ugly in the winter and takes over fields with lush green leaves in the summer. One may be amazed to learn that Kudzu can be harvested and brewed into viable ethanol thus rivaling the corn crop in both harvest levels and carbohydrate per acre. According to Jessica Marshall, in her article, Kudzu Gets Kudos as a Potential Biofuel, it has the same potential carbohydrate harvest as corn. There are concerns about creating fields for crops—what with kudzu being so prolific on tough to get at mountainside locations, but the details can be worked out. Fallow fields can be utilized and the nitrogen produced will help to fertilize the field for future crops. The important thing to remember is there is research showing the ability to create a fuel source for our addiction to the internal combustion engine.

In Retrospect

Kudzu. It came from someplace else to serve a purpose and took over vast swaths of mountainside and farmable land here in the South East, but now it seems to be finding a tolerable niche in our world. Even though we have looked at several ways to eradicate or utilize kudzu, the prevailing attitude is that kudzu is a nuisance weed that is taking over unused land.

In the economy that we are facing and with the impending shortage of fossil fuels looming on the horizon, we should look into ways of harvesting this “Plant that ate the South.” In this short essay we have examined several ways to deal with this nuisance, but I think the most important thing we need to do is change how we look at it. Kudzu is much more than a mere weed that grows on trees and blankets vast swaths of land. I have seen what looks like the carcasses of huge trucks enveloped by the green fibrous leaf. The truth is, in the late spring and summer the way the plant enshrouds, or takes over its domain, is rather pretty. The uniformity and even its flowers are prettier than fields with nothing but dirt covering them.

We need to think outside the box and find ways to harvest the roots and leaves for practical uses for kudzu. There are more ways to use kudzu as we learn more about it. As we find uses for the Legume, we will develop more efficient ways to harvest it.

Granted, there are some things I have researched that seemed rather useless in the short run but they represent a growing number of researchers who realize that kudzu may have beneficial uses. There are even festivals and one county has a Miss Kudzu beauty pageant celebrating the mighty weed. This represents an attitude of curiosity and innovation that makes our country the most important one in the world. We learn how to make something that shows only negative attributes and turn it into something with the potential of vast worth.

What do you think? Let me know. Do you have any suggestions for other articles for me to research?

olc

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