|Kuzu also has a dark side. A sea of green tendrils and leaves that blankets seven million acres of the southeastern United States from May to October, kuzu smothers utility poles, trees, and barns. This prolific vine causes millions of dollars in damage each year. It's no wonder that kuzu has been jokingly referred to as a vegetable form of cancer and the weed that ate Dixie.
Ironically, while irate farmers and utility companies have been killing kuzu by spraying and burning the plants, for years Asian people in the United States have been importing kuzu roots and root powder for medicinal and culinary use.
Kuzu's schizophrenic existence in America began around the beginning of the 1900s, shortly after it was introduced from Japan. With purple wisteria-like flowers perfuming the summer air and cattle grazing on its large, high-protein leaves, kuzu seemed like a perfect plant for southern farmers. Moreover, kuzu's large, penetrating root system and nitrogen-fixing capability made it ideal for building soil and preventing soil erosion.
By the 1950s, however, many of kuzu's advocates had become disillusioned. Indeed, it was kuzu's incredible vitality that was causing the problem. Unchecked by its natural Asiatic enemies, kuzu enjoyed perfect growing conditions in the South and began to grow out of control. Under these conditions, according to Japanese foods scholar and author William Shurtleff, co-author of The Book of Kuzu, kuzu can grow one foot a day. One acre of neglected vines can cover thirteen-thousand acres in one hundred years!
In the 1960s, kuzu was partially redeemed because of America's growing interest in everything Japanese. Students of macrobiotics, Zen, and Oriental medicine began learning about kuzu's nutritional and medicinal value. It was even rumored that kuzu was the main food of the mysterious sen-nin, the Japanese mountain hermits who lived a life of simple austerity in order to find immortality through self-purification.
Kuzu soon became a respected food and medicine among macrobiotic and health-conscious consumers. Basic kuzu cream with umeboshi was found to be a very effective remedy for an acid stomach and for intestinal inflammation. Kuzu's mild taste, translucent sheen, and good jelling ability made it popular in puddings, sauces, stews, and glazes.