THURMOND — The choking vine that turns pockets of untended land into shapeless monsters of leafy greens is more than just a useless hostile invasion. For those who know how to harvest it, kudzu can be a tasty treat.
Darryl and Tamera Wilson, who operate local business Carolina Kudzu Crazy, started with a thought, did some research, and turned a problem into a solution.
“We heard that kudzu is 19-percent protein,” said Darryl, who started by using the leaves to feed pigs and rabbits before doing further research.
“We knew that you could eat the leaves like anything you would use greens for,” continued Darryl, “but you have to make sure they’re under two inches.”
“The larger leaves are too hard to chew,” said Tamera, who has turned daily tending of the kudzu patch into a few therapeutic moments each day. “I like to come out because it’s nice and quiet.”
On a tranquil road just outside of Dobson, the Wilson family has found an ideal place to harvest.
“The guy who owns this knows we are coming out here,” said Darryl. “He mows around the edges, but he has agreed to not spray here.”
Many people apply chemicals to kudzu to try to eliminate the invasive, but highly useful plant in order to control its fast maturity.
“It grows about a foot a week,” said Darryl, although in the height of the season, the vine has been known to grow as much as two feet a day, according to some sources.
Introduced in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as part of an exhibit of native Asian plants, kudzu was aggressively planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1940s as a way to prevent erosion, in addition to the farmers who had been planting it for grazing. Because of the growth rate and resistance to indigenous insects, a lack of consistent attendance leads to the plant consuming the environment in which it grows, killing trees and other plants.
For those who know the benefits and who are willing to do the work, kudzu can be a miracle plant. According to the University of Michigan Health System, “the first written mention of the plant as a medicine is in the ancient herbal text of Shen Nong (circa A.D. 100).”
It has continued to be used for a variety of ailments and is available to be purchased as a supplement. WebMD states it is used to treat alcoholism, cold and flu, diabetes, heart and circulatory problems, menopause symptoms, migraines, psoriasis and a host of other complaints.
It also tastes good which was a surprise to the Wilsons, who decided to research the plant further after using it for their animals. This was how they learned to make jelly from the flowers, which most people do not see on kudzu. “You have to really look hard,” said Darryl as he pulled a low running vine to show the small purple buds underneath.
“It takes one cup of dried blossoms for one jar of jelly,” explained Tamera, describing the process for making the jelly they sell, which can only be made four cups at a time.
“We’ve tried to make more at once, but it comes out too thin,” explained Darryl. “That’s how we started doing the syrup.”
“We’re working on sugar free, too,” said Tamera, describing the change in color that takes place when the sweetener is changed. “We don’t add any color to that,” she said of the translucent red substance.
In addition to the sweet kudzu jelly that can be substituted wherever jelly is used, Carolina Kudzu Crazy also makes a sweet and spicy version they call a pepper relish, which is good in cooking as well as on a cracker. The Wilsons also make glazes and other flavors of jellies such as kudzu-blackberry in addition to putting the vines to use for baskets and wreaths.
To contact Darryl and Tamera Wilson for more information on where to find their kudzu products, email email@example.com, call 336-469-4242 or follow them at Facebook.com/carolinakudzucrazy.
Beanie Taylor works for The Elkin Tribune and can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Twitter @TBeanieTaylor.