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Turn a weed into a wonder: Use kudzu for tea, jelly and herbal remedies

Kudzu blossoms can be turned into a pink, fruity tea.
Kudzu Culture
Kudzu blossoms can be turned into a pink, fruity tea.

Kudzu has long held a reputation in Western North Carolina as an unruly, invasive pest. The fast-growing weed, native to Asia, is known as “the vine that ate the South,” and is more populous in the Southeast than anywhere else in the world.

Lauren Bacchus, chair of local nonprofit Kudzu Culture, wants to bring more nuance to that narrative.

“We work on educating people to learn how to integrate kudzu into their lives by harvesting it for fiber, food, and medicine,” Bacchus said. She argued “keeping ecological balance and harmony” should also be considered when approaching the removal of the vine.

“It’s an illusion of monoculture,” said Bacchus. “If you’re actually looking in the kudzu and observing it over all four seasons, you see the biodiversity that exists in kudzu, and how it’s forming habitat for other plants and animals.”

That doesn’t mean some removal isn’t necessary, she acknowledged.

“Oftentimes it’s good to address where [the kudzu] is sprawling out, to get it off tree lines and shrink it, but also we don’t want to just go in and plow it all over because there are other species living in it.”

People who want to learn how to turn this sometimes pesky plant into something useful can attend the “Community Through Kudzu: Kudzu Blossom Harvest” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, August 19th at The Botanical Gardens at Asheville.

The free event, hosted by Kudzu Culture in partnership with the Urban Forest Alliance, Montford Neighborhood Association, and the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, will teach folks how to identify, harvest, and use kudzu blossoms to create jelly, tea, and other herbal remedies.

Past workshops from the nonprofit included lessons on how to use vines for fiber and the roots for starch.

Small purple kudzu blossoms
Kudzu Culture
Kudzu blossoms usually bloom in late summer.

The small, purple kudzu blossoms can be tricky to spot beneath the thick and overflowing layers of green vine that shroud Appalachian roadsides. They typically bloom in late summer.

“They kind of look like Wisteria or Sweet Pea blossoms,” explained Bacchus. “They smell like a deep earthy grape. Some people say it smells and tastes like an artificial grape drink.”

As for the flavor? In its raw form, it is sweet and mild. When prepared in syrups and jellies, it tastes a bit fruitier.

The blossoms also have medicinal properties, according to Bacchus. In Mandarin, the blossoms are known as “Gehua” and are traditionally valued for having anti-inflammatory and detox properties.

Even when it is not advisable to eat the blossoms – i.e., in areas where there’s lots of herbicides used – there is value in harvesting them to prevent further spread of the vine, Bacchus said.

“The blossoms become the seed pods, so to prevent vector spread people can also cut the blossoms and use them in floral arrangements, scented potpourri, and other products.”

Bacchus said she hopes the workshops will help people think about how to approach kudzu beyond herbicides and total removal.

A few early adopters of this kudzu product model include Shanti Elixir’s “Kudzu Dandelion” tea and Fiberhouse Collective’s “Vine to Cloth” program, which teaches people how to make fabric out of kudzu vines.

“We’re working on getting enough people engaged in their habitats in a responsible way, so that when institutions and entities are deciding to spray herbicide - that perhaps they'll make different decisions if the kudzu is being kept from spread in other ways.”

Want to attend the workshop?

Register to attend at no cost by emailing kudzuculture@gmail.com. The workshop takes place inside a classroom at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville (151 WT Weaver Blvd.) and runs on Saturday, August 19 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.