By Gina Malone
If you can’t beat it, learn to love it. The 8th annual Kudzu Root Camp, held in Sylva from Friday, March 16, to Sunday, March 18, offers hands-on training in making practical use of vigorously growing kudzu, often referred to as “the vine that ate the South” after it was brought from Asia for erosion control. Campers learn to harvest roots for starch extraction, to cook with the plant and use it medicinally, to manage its growth and to harvest and use the vines.
“Studying permaculture launched me headlong into the kudzu patch,” says Justin Holt, co-founder along with Zev Friedman, of the camp. “Kudzu jumped out at me early in my exploration of the plant world,” Holt says, “because it’s kind of a dramatic character—the way it blankets the landscape and climbs up trees and poles to create these towering green castles. I knew of kudzu as an invasive species, but didn’t have the whole story.”
Along with his achievements, including co-founding the Nutty Buddy Collective and serving on the board of the North American Fruit Explorers, Holt calls himself a “kudzu cowboy, [who] wrangles kudzu vines and roots for fiber and food.” It was while working as an apprentice to Zev Friedman—permaculture designer, researcher, teacher and writer—that Holt read The Book of Kudzu: A Culinary and Healing Guide by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. “After seeing how in places where there is a culture of valuing and using the plant,” Holt says, “it ceases to be a problem (and actually is becoming scarce), I became captivated by the quest to discover how we can do the same here in the South.”
The annual camp is held at Friedman’s childhood home in Sylva where his father, Avram Friedman, lives still amid a mountainside kudzu patch of about three acres. The end of winter is the ideal time to hold the camp because the patch is more accessible and, with the plant in dormancy, the starch content in the roots is higher.
Holt and Friedman began harvesting and extracting starch from kudzu roots in 2010. They removed a patch of kudzu more than 40 years old in order to grow milpa, a traditional farming system centered around corn, beans and squash. “We’ve harvested and processed kudzu every year since that fi rst year,” Holt says, “each time learning more and enjoying it enough to keep doing it.”
Harvesting roots for starch, they have learned, is most efficiently done with a “work camp” approach in which participants share the labor since the mountain landscape does not lend itself to machine digging. Time and effort involved in the process can make small, home-scale processing an impractical endeavor.
Among the recipes used at camp are kudzu matcha mochi, a sweet treat, and kudzu mint Tulsi Tea. Medicinal uses include treatment of high blood pressure, allergies and migraines. Herbalists are also using roots to treat alcohol and opiate addiction and brewing it into teas and tinctures.
“The response to camp has been overwhelmingly positive,” Holt says, “to the point that many attendees have returned for a second and even third year. I think a signifi cant aspect that keeps people coming back is the character of the event. It’s part workshop, part skill-share, part experiment in a village-scale work camp.”
Participants—usually 15 to 20—bring ingredients for one meal to share with others at camp, which, Holt says, “contributes to the village-style vibe.” Those attending include “feral types who travel around to earthskills gatherings, curious academics, craftspeople, farmers who want to learn what to do with the kudzu on their land, foodies, environmental activists and permaculturists.”
There is some lecture-style teaching, says Holt, but it’s mostly hands-on and experiential. “The focus is to produce kudzu starch and share a sense of the enormous potential kudzu has to provide us with nutrition, medicine and much more. And more deeply, to share a view of the world and way of approaching our ecology that, rather than placing humans in conflict with our environment, recognizes how we can meet our needs while also promoting the health, vitality and resilience of the ecosystems in which we exist. In that way,” he adds, “we look at kudzu—the poster child for invasive species—as a doorway into ecological thinking.”
To learn more or to register, visit kudzuculture.net. Deadline for signing up for the camp is Friday, March 9, and a contribution of $25 to $50 a day is suggested.