Kudzu Entrepreneurs Find Gold in Green "Menace"

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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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