Native range: Asia
Invasive range: Common throughout most of the Southeast and has been found as far north as North Dakota and Orgeon.
Description: Perennial woody vine. Aggressive climber. Alternate and compound leaves, typically with three broad leaflets. Purple flowers, highly fragrant.
Kudzu was first brought to the U.S. by Japan, which promoted it as an ornamental and as a forage crop at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. By 1900, its fragrant grape-scented purple flowers and the vine’s ability seemingly to cover a trellis in a night had made it popular on porches throughout the Southeastern US. Despite the warning of a visionary biologist named David Fairchild in 1902 that this vine could become something new to the scientific community, an “invasive species,” kudzu was planted through the South, first as livestock feed, then as erosion control along highways. Farmers were paid to plant the stuff in the 1940s.
In 1953, the federal government stopped advocating the planting of kudzu, and the USDA declared it a weed in 1972. Kudzu had outgrown the farms raising it and gone wild, smothering forests, parkland, or yards in its path, earning itself the name the Vine that Ate the South. You don’t achieve the status of weed by being hard to grow or easy to kill. You take millions of acres without breaking a sweat.
But recently the story took a fascinating turn. Invasives often thrive in the absence of native predators, competitors, or parasites. In 2009, what’s been dubbed the kudzu bug was identified in the South, a brand new invader from Asia. It eats kudzu–joy of joys–but that’s not all it eats. It devours soybeans, too, a huge moneymaker of a crop. What’s the solution?
Kudzu Blossom Sorbet
José Gutierrez, Chez Philippe, Memphis, Tennessee
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups water
13/4 cups sugar
2 cups kudzu blossoms
1 ounce licorice root, minced
1 pinch cayenne pepper
Place the wine, water, and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. When this is boiling, add the kudzu blossoms, licorice root, and cayenne pepper and boil for 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and leave overnight to infuse the flavors. The next day, strain the mixture, place it in an ice cream maker, and process according to the manufacturer’s directions. For those without an ice cream maker: Transfer the strained mixture to a glass baking dish. Freeze the mixture until firm, stirring occasionally, for about five hours. Break the sorbet into large pieces and purée it in a food processor until smooth and creamy. Cover and freeze until firm. Let the sorbet stand at room temperature for 5 minutes before serving.