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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kudzu- it's everywhere- even in the bath!

Yesterday I almost sold out of chai tea soap( there's only one bar left for sale on my Etsy site), so had to make more. Now I'm completely sold out of Kudzu again, so tomorrow I must make more kudzu soap. A lot of people buy it to give as gifts to people up north- something quintessentially Southern, they tell me. But kudzu really isn't a southern native at all. It came here as a guest, then liked it so much that it refused to leave. A lot of folks think it wore out its welcome long ago. It's been called "The Vine That Ate the South," and with good reason- folks say that if you park your car too close to a kudzu patch overnight, you might find it completley covered come morning. In fact, there's an abandoned old house I pass nearly every day that is almost invisible come late summer, covered by kudzu.

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a perennial woody vine, a member of the legume family, native to Japan and southeastern China, where it has been used as a food and in herbal medicine for centuries. Kudzu was brought to the United States for exhibit at the 1876 Bicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The plant, with its large leaves, beautiful magenta flower clusters and sweet, grape-like scent was a hit with gardeners, who used it as an ornamental plant. It was also promoted as a food source for animals and as a means to control soil erosion. It became so popular that it was referred to as “The Miracle Vine” and Kudzu Clubs were started in the 1940s in its honor. But by the 1950s kudzu had fallen out of favor and was becoming a pest, especially in the Southeastern US, where it found ideal growing conditions. Actually, it grew too well– with no native insects to threaten it, it grew as much as sixty feet a year, soon covering trees, power lines and anything else in its path, often blocking sunlight that native trees needed for growth. Resistant to herbicides (in fact, some herbicides actually stimulated its growth!) it became a threat to native species. The US Department of Agriculture declared Kudzu a weed in 1972, and people have fought to eradicate it ever since– mostly without success.

But Kudzu does have its virtues— every part of the kudzu plant can be used: the leaves not only make a great compost, but are high in vitamins C and A, and can be eaten (as long as they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides). You can boil them, steam them, fry them, pickle them, or even eat them raw. Bees love kudzu flowers, and produce a wonderfully scented honey from them. The flowers are also used to make tea and a delicious kudzu jelly. Kudzu vines can be woven into baskets and fiber from the vines can be used to make paper and cloth. The roots can be ground into a powder or used to make a tea. The tea and powder have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a number of conditions, from skin rashes to alcoholism.

I've always been fond of kudzu, despite it's nasty habits, except when it invades my own garden, and thought it might be interesting to use it in soap. So I convinced poor Mr. G to wade into any likely kudzu patches he might pass by on his travels. That dear man willingly risks snakebites, chiggers and who knows what to bring me big bunches of kudzu flowers, which I make into tea, then freeze for later use in making soap. In years when the flowers are not abundant or easily accessible (or when Mr. G is unwilling to risk life and limb), I use tea made from the powdered root. It makes a nice soap that smells delicious- kind of like grape jelly ( I have to admit to adding fragrance to this soap, since the kudzu scent doesn't survive the saponification process, but the fragrance oil does make the soap smell more like the blossoms).
The flowers are really quite lovely, but they're hard to see, since they're often hidden under the large leaves. But if you walk or drive past a patch of kudzu in mid to late August and smell the scent of grape jelly, look closer- you just might see some of them, and understand why people fell in love with kudzu at the Bicentennial Exhibition. I don't know why people fell in love with my kudzu soap, but I'm glad they did.

1 comment:

Twinville said...

When we lived in South Carolina, I remember always being amazed at how fast the kudzu grew and how it threatened to take over homes, cars, gardens, etc.

I'm really glad to read your post that the kudzu does have some redeeming qualities, though.

And I had no idea that one could make a kudzu soap. How cool is that?!