Science - History - Applications
The Kudzu Collection
  Just What The Heck Is Kudzu Anyhow?

It's a bean vine. The legume, Pueraria thunbergiana, to be exact. Grows like a Kentucky Wonder green bean plant on steroids, with a stalk nearly as large as the one that Jack climbed. Propagating at the rate of a foot (or more) each day, kudzu is an awesome beast. According to tradition, most Southern mothers will keep a close eye on their kids during the summer months to prevent them from being chocked to death in their sleep by a wayward kudzu vine that has crawled through the bedroom window.

Example of Pueraria thunbergiana foliage.
(US Highway 64 near Knightdale, NC)

A native of China and Japan, the kudzu plant is a coarse-growing perennial with trifoliate leaves that have coarsely lobed leafets. It produces large, wisteria-like, purple flowers on long racemes, and beans in flat, papery pods covered with a tawny down. Kudzu plants produce long lateral runners that generate roots at intervals. Being a member of the bean family (Fabaceae), bacteria in the roots fixes atmospheric nitrogen, thus increasing soil fertility wherever it grows. Were the vines not killed by frost, the entire South would soon become a single huge kudzu patch. As it is, the two million acres of kudzu now present in the South grow back from the roots each spring.

A fine crop of kudzu vine.
(US Highway 64 near Wendell, NC)

In its native lands, the roots are used to make a medicinal tea for treating dysentery and fever. In Japan, a kind of kudzu tofu is highly prized. The stems yield a fiber called ko-kemp that is useful in making cloth and paper. And, last but not least, the plant contains a chemical compound, daidzin, that has proven to be effective in suppressing the craving for alcohol. Indeed, as you read these very words, researchers at Harvard Medical School are hard at work feeding kudzu to alcoholic hampsters in an effort to prove that a kudzu extract used in China and Japan for centuries to treat alcoholism won't kill you!

It's kudzu fields forever!
(Cherry Street, a few blocks from downtown Winston Salem, NC)

Kudzu was introduced into the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and into the South at the New Orleans Exposition during 1884-1886. Some folks began using the plant as a shade vine for their porches and arbors. Cows thought it tasty as a hay and forage, but its stems made it difficult to harvest. The big break for kudzu came during the Great Depression of the 1930's when the US Government paid farmers $8.00 an acre to plant the stuff on fallow fields and bare banks as a means of controlling erosion. It's been growing like a weed ever since. Today, the primary value of kudzu is as a source of amusement and ridicule. And, of course, the plant is a valuable source of medication for alcoholic hampsters!


The Kudzu Collection