Kudzu Entrepreneurs Find Gold in Green "Menace"

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.

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