There was a reason the land was so cheap. It was steep, and covered in kudzu. Smothering, invasive, fast-growing, evil kudzu.
Or, at least, that is the prevailing perception. But after a childhood spent growing up in the kudzu patch, Zev Friedman — the 18-month-old who accompanied his parents in the school bus — is working to change that attitude.
“I look at that hill of kudzu, and instead of seeing a problem, I see this huge bank full of food and medicine,” said Friedman, now 36. “It’s a felt sense of that. It’s like looking out and seeing a field full of peaches or a field full of corn, or cows. It’s a transformation of consciousness and relationship to the plant.”
It’s common knowledge that kudzu, often referred to as “the vine that ate the South,” is a dangerous invasive, its vines growing up to a foot per day during the summer, strangling trees and transforming otherwise diverse natural ecosystems into monocultures of tangled vines full of snakes and ticks. Native to Asia, it’s estimated to cover more than 7 million acres in the Southeastern United States.
Zev Friedman chops up kudzu roots in preparation for Zev Friedman chops up kudzu roots in preparation for processing. Holly Kays photo
But nearly a decade of investigation into the vices and virtues of kudzu has led Zev, a permaculture designer by trade, to challenge that narrative. As it turns out, kudzu is useful for all kinds of things — animal fodder, starch, medicine, basketry and papermaking, for starters — and its doesn’t spread nearly as aggressively as most folks believe.
The plants can be killed by cutting off the top of the root — called the crown — and discarding the associated vines. Its seeds have extremely low germination rates, meaning that, while kudzu patches will certainly expand if left unchecked, new kudzu patches are typically created only when somebody plants them.
“With some concentrated human labor and knowing how to do it, it’s actually really easy to eliminate a patch of kudzu,” said Justin Holt, 32, Zev’s partner in all things kudzu.
Planting is exactly how kudzu got here in the first place — during the dust storms of the 1930s, the United States enlisted kudzu in its war on soil erosion, with the Soil Erosion Service giving about 85 million of the fast-growing plants to Southern landowners and the Civilian Conservation Corps planting kudzu throughout the South. By 1946, about 3 million acres had been planted. Many of these initial plantings didn’t survive, but those that did eventually took off, multiplying their reach. By the 1950s kudzu’s reputation had flipped from flawless solution to formidable problem.
But, according to Zev, that’s not kudzu’s fault. In its native Asia, he said, human use and harvesting keeps the plant in check, but here harvesting was never part of the equation.
“It got brought here without bringing the culture of use with it,” said Zev. “That’s why it got out of control.”
From soil to starch
In mid-March, the steep hillside that’s home to the Friedman’s kudzu patch is still brown, the dead vines from last year not yet usurped by the new growth set to overtake them in the coming weeks. Zev and Holt, co-organizers of the annual Kudzu Camp event — now in its seventh year — lead the way up earthen steps carved into the slope and stop when they’ve reached the site of this year’s excavation. Holt gets to work raking the dead vines away as Zev jams his shovel into the ground.
“This is what you’re looking for here,” Zev says, pointing out the bulb-like root top he’s just unearthed. “See this? This is a crown.”
The crown is the heart of a kudzu plant. It’s the very top of the root system, the point from which all new growth sprouts. Without the crown, the plant would die. While Zev dug out the crown in a matter of seconds, the kudzu campers are charged with a much more daunting task than simply chopping off the top. They’re asked to dig out the entire root, from crown to tip, damaging it as little as possible along the way.
“They tend to be these clusters,” says Zev, and sure enough, as he continues to dig, one crown pops up alongside his hole, and then another, and another. Before long, the entire group has found a root to dig in that concentrated area of slope, piercing the rich soil with all manner of trowels and shovels.
Zev Friedman demonstrates proper kudzu digging technique. Holly Kays photo
The work goes on for hours, spread over two days, but by the end of it the crew has harvested 315 pounds of kudzu root, far more than the typical Kudzu Camp range of 200 to 250 pounds. Holt attributes the elevated take to the fact that the groups focused its digging on a single area, while before they’ve dug along a contour or spent time excavating the larger roots along forest edges. In the past, they’ve found roots weighing as much as 70 pounds.
“It’s not an archeological dig,” said Holt. “You’ve got to move a little soil to get these roots.”
Digging out a kudzu root is hard work, but getting it out of the ground is only the first step in the complex process that is kudzu processing.
From those 315 pounds, Holt is hoping to get about 13 pounds of starch. But he doesn’t yet know the final count, because even though kudzu camp took place March 16 to 19, the refining process takes weeks to complete.
It starts, however, with a chop and a bang.
The first step is to give the roots a good cleaning, rinsing them off, cutting off any parts that were damaged in the digging process and then rinsing them again. Next the roots get chopped up into disks, weighed and transferred to a cauldron to be pounded into mush with a sledgehammer. The pounding releases the distinctive kudzu smell, earthy and green.
What follows next is a long process of rinsing and wringing and waiting for the starch to settle and re-smashing and re-rinsing and re-wringing and re-waiting for the starch to settle — and so on, until it’s all extracted and, finally, dried.
Suffice it to say, kudzu processing isn’t something you can do in an afternoon. It’s not even something to be done solo, at least not efficiently.
“Properly done, it’s a communal work process where different people are carrying out different parts of the process,” Zev explained.
Changing the mindset
Holt and Zev first processed kudzu together in 2011, an experiment prompted by necessity. At the time, Holt was new to permaculture and working as Zev’s apprentice. One of their clients wanted some crops planted on her land, and Zev found himself eyeing the kudzu-covered portion of the property.
“I was digging around one of the roots one day in her yard, and the soil was so beautiful next to that kudzu root,” said Zev. “I dug about one-and-a-half feet from that plant, and the soil was red clay. I knew it was nitrogen-fixing, but I hadn’t considered how profound the effect was on the soil.”
He and Holt set to work digging all that kudzu out, and their planting grew beautifully in the first season, with follow-ups needed for just a couple years afterward to get rid of kudzu plants they’d missed on the first go-around. Zev, remembering his childhood on the kudzu patch, wanted to try doing something with all those kudzu roots they’d dug up. Kudzu Camp was born.
Justin Holt samples a cup of sumac honey tea with kudzu. Holly Kays photo
That first year, they got only a couple tablespoons of starch for their efforts. But the next year they took the kudzu harvesting idea to Avram’s home. Avram joined Zev and Holt, and since then kudzu processing has become an annual tradition, growing to the point that this year 27 people participated over the course of the weekend.
It’s a tradition that Avram has been happy to join.
Even back in 1983, when he bought the land, he knew that there was more to kudzu than the demon-plant of popular culture. He’d read The Book of Kudzu — a 1977 tome that hails kudzu as “the world’s finest cooking starch, a healing herb more versatile than ginseng” — and while he’d experimented somewhat with kudzu processing, he’d always intended to do more to use the countless vines on his 3 acres.
“Life kind of gets in the way, and you have to make the mortgage payments, so we sort of let that go on the backburner until seven years ago Zev and Justin (Holt) started digging up roots to experiment with,” said Avram. “It’s grown from that because of their efforts, and now I’m fired up again about the whole thing.”
If you ask kudzu enthusiasts, it’s something of a miracle plant. It’s useful as a thickener for cooking anything from curry to pudding. Its purported medicinal uses range from treating hangovers and alcoholism to curing colds, upset stomachs and countless other ailments. The leaves are high in protein, making them excellent fodder for livestock, and they can also be dried and ground into flour. The vines can be twisted into baskets, the pulp processed into paper. Kudzu is nitrogen-fixing, meaning that it adds nitrogen to the soil instead of taking it away, and its prolific leaves decompose to create a rich topsoil layer.
“I learned a lot more about kudzu than I knew there was,” said first-time Kudzu Camp participant Jacob Boland.
“Every year we do this, we’re like, ‘Wow.’ The list of potential uses gets larger and larger and larger,” said Zev. “I just become more aware of how much of a resource it is.”
So much so that the digging in the Friedman’s kudzu patch isn’t aimed at eradicating kudzu from the property. They’re working to control it — keep it from spreading, perhaps reduce its area a bit — but definitely not to destroy it.
Long-term, Zev’s hoping to develop a permaculture system on the land of which kudzu will be a key component. He envisions a landscape featuring wineberry, nettles, honey locust, burdock, and of course his beloved kudzu.
“It’s actually a highly productive emergent ecosystem,” he said. “Most of those plants aren’t native, but they grow well together, and they’re all foods for people.”
For Zev and Holt, most of their kudzu-related efforts are of a trial-and-error nature. Kudzu is a mainstream agricultural crop in Asia — in fact, the Eastern world has agricultural varieties of kudzu just like we do of tomatoes and peppers, Zev said — but very little of that research is in English. And in the United States, kudzu research is scant. While WebMD features a long list of potential medical uses for kudzu, all of them are listed as having insufficient evidence for effectiveness and dosing.
After years of use and observations, Zev and Holt can both attest to the realness of kudzu’s purported medical benefits, and to the ins and outs of growing and harvesting it. But they’re hoping to elevate that knowledge from the realm of observation to the realm of research, having recently applied for a grant that would allow them to do some actual quantitative research on kudzu agriculture.
Because, for the kudzu enthusiasts of Western North Carolina, the ultimate goal is to build a movement that extends far beyond the boundaries of this immediate region. Currently, about eight people are members of a kudzu co-op led by Holt and the Friedmans. The group meets every two months, putting kudzu through its various stages of harvest and processing and organizing two separate Kudzu Camp sessions — the March root camp and the July vine camp.
Ideally, said Zev, the co-op would be about twice as big — roughly 15 adults — and work on a system that could be replicated elsewhere.
“We’re trying to do this as a form of ecological activity,” he said. “If you had 200 groups around the Southeast harvesting kudzu like this, that starts to be a serious control for kudzu.”
Such a revolution could result in countless vine-covered acres reclaimed by native plants. But it could also cause a second, equally important shift.
“It’s changing the mindset,” said Zev, “changing the attitude, thinking of kudzu as an ally instead of an enemy.”
This root starch has been leached 10 times in cold water over a period of two weeks before reaching the final drying stage. Donated photo
Kudzu starch is a versatile thickener, similar to cornstarch but with medicinal properties as well. For one cup of liquid, here’s how much kudzu starch you’ll need to do the job:
- ½ to ¾ teaspoon for clear soups
- 3/4 to 1 teaspoon for thickened beverages
- 2 teaspoons for thin sauces and soups
- 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 tablespoons for thick sauces
- 2 tablespoons for jelled liquids and glazes
All ratios from The Book of Kudzu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi.
Check out vine camp
During Kudzu Vine Camp July 20-22, students will learn how to process young kudzu vines into beautiful fiber for weaving, also exploring kudzu cuisine and kudzu paper-making. The group will work at a scale similar to the traditional Japanese method, sharing meals and responsibilities for camp.
More information at www.kudzuculture.net.