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Kudzu Entrepreneurs Find Gold in Green "Menace"

John Roach
National Geographic News
April 22, 2005
 
Nancy Basket agrees with the sentiment that kudzu, a fast-growing vine
originally imported to the U.S. from Japan, is a menace. But 15 years
ago she learned to respect that menace and now it's rewarding her with a
profitable—and growing—business.

Basket is a Native American artisan who runs Kudzu Kabin Designs from her home in the Appalachian foothills of Walhalla, South Carolina. She is one of a handful of people who are seeing gold in the vine that North Americans love to hate.

"It's obnoxious and everything else. It's very invasive. It grows 12 inches [30 centimeters] every single day, and people haven't been able to use it. But I use it for everything, and people can buy it [from me] in a form that's guaranteed to never grow again," Basket said.

Items for sale at Basket's design studio include her namesake baskets (she is named for a basket-making great grandmother) woven out of kudzu vines and cards and posters made out of kudzu paper.

The artisan also dabbles in kudzu recipes for everything from kudzu quiches and breads to jellies and candies. Even her studio is made out of kudzu bales—the only such structure of its kind.

Other kudzu entrepreneurs make sculptures, bales for animal feed, kudzu cookbooks, kudzu soaps, and kudzu dyes for t-shirts. Researchers at Harvard Medical School successfully tested a drug on lab animals made from kudzu root that may help treat alcoholism.

Diane Hoots, a resident of Georgia, sells an assortment of kudzu products ranging from jellies to T-shirts from her store, Krazy Kudzu Products. She said her business is more novelty gag than profit-making venture. Current kudzu-made products make no dent in the kudzu problem, she said.

"Do something with [kudzu], use it up," Hoots said. "But I don't suggest anybody plant it."

The Kudzu Menace

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a perennial vine that has dark green leaves, starchy fibrous roots, and elongated purple flowers that smell like grapes.

The vine is native to China, was imported to Japan in the 1700s, and was introduced to the U.S. by the Japanese at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

At the exhibition the Japanese displayed a garden with plants from their country and, according to the 1996 public television documentary The Amazing Story of Kudzu, the vine's large leaves and blossoms were a big hit. U.S. gardeners sowed the plant's seeds for ornamental purposes.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in Richmond reports that kudzu was also popularly used as a soil stabilizer and animal food. However, the vine's prolific nature and lack of natural predators in the U.S. meant it quickly became a pest.

The plant is considered a hardy opportunist and, left unchecked will outcompete native shrubs and trees. During the summer months, the vine can grow a foot (30 centimeters) a day, crowding out and overpowering everything in its path: trees, telephone poles, homes, and hillsides.

In 1972 kudzu was listed in the southern U.S. as a common weed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today the plant can be found all along the Atlantic coast, north to Illinois and Massachusetts, and west to Texas and Oklahoma.

The heaviest infestations occur in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, where by one count, kudzu covers more than 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares). And it's hard to kill—an established field may take up to ten years to eradicate.

"It's a menace," Basket, the Appalachian kudzu artisan, said.

Matter of Respect

Basket, who was an established basket weaver when she moved to Walhalla from Washington State in 1989, came to the Appalachians to learn the Cherokee stories of respect for nature that her Cherokee grandmother never knew. (The Cherokees are native to the Appalachians).

When she saw the kudzu, she tried to weave a basket out of it, but the basket quickly fell apart. "The plants knew we didn't respect them," she said. The problem, she added, was that people in the U.S. failed to see what good kudzu had to offer.

Basket said she learned to respect the plants for their value as a source of tree-free paper. Today she uses kudzu paper to make more than 150 different notecard designs, each with a Native American story on the back.

Once Basket learned to make kudzu paper—"a sign of respect to both the vine and trees"—she was able to make baskets that stay together. "It's been history ever since," she said.

While Hoots of Krazy Kudzu Products applauds any use of kudzu—she dreams of opening a museum to showcase the history and uses of the vine—she said kudzu will remain a problem in the southern U.S. until engineers design an effective way to harvest and use it for mass consumption, like as a fertilizer.

"You can only make so many baskets," she said. "If I made baskets with all the kudzu in the South, everyone would have a hundred baskets. I may be exaggerating a little bit, but I doubt it. There's a lot of vines out there."

This National Geographic News series is underwritten with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

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