Kudzu, Pueraria lobata (syn. P. montana, P. thunbergiana), is one of about 20 species in the genus Pueraria in the pea family Fabaceae, subfamily Faboideae. It is native to southern Japan and southeast China in eastern Asia. The name comes from the Japanese word meaning vine. The other species of Pueraria occur in southeast Asia, further south.
It is a climbing, woody or semi-woody, perennial vine capable of reaching heights of 20–30 m (66-98 ft) in trees, but also scrambles extensively over lower vegetation. The leaves are deciduous, alternate and compound, with a petiole (leaf stem) 10–20 cm (4–8 in) long and three broad leaflets 14–18 cm (6–7 in) long and 10 cm (4 in) broad. The leaflets may be entire or deeply 2–3 lobed, and are pubescent underneath with hairy margins.
The flowers are borne in long panicles 10–25 cm (about 4–10 in) long with about 30–80 individual blooms at nodes on the stems (see image). Each flower is about 1–1.5 cm (about 0.4–0.6 in) long, purple, and highly fragrant. The flowers are copious nectar producers and are visited by many species of insects, including bees, butterflies and moths. Flowering occurs in late summer and is soon followed by production of brown, hairy, flattened seed pods, each of which contains three to ten hard seeds.
The non-woody parts of the plant are edible. The young leaves can be used for salad or cooked as a leaf vegetable; the flowers battered and fried (like squash flowers); and the starchy tuberous roots can be prepared as any root vegetable.
Once established, kudzu plants grow rapidly, extending as much as 20 m (60 ft) per season at a rate of about 30 cm (12 in) per day. This vigorous vine may extend 10–30 m (30–100 ft) in length, with basal stems 1–10 cm (1–4 in) in diameter. Kudzu roots are fleshy, with massive tap roots 10–20 cm (4–8 in) or more in diameter, 1–2 m (3–6 ft) or more in length, and weighing as much as 180 kg. As many as thirty stems may grow from a single root crown.
Kudzu grows well under a wide range of conditions and in most soil types. Preferred habitats are forest edges, abandoned fields, roadsides, and disturbed areas, where sunlight is abundant. Kudzu grows best where winters do not drop below –15 °C (5 °F), average summer temperatures are regularly above 27 °C (80 °F), and annual rainfall is 1000 mm (40 in) or more. In areas where winters drop below –15 °C, it will be killed to ground level, but the roots may send up new growth in the spring.
Kudzu is sometimes referred to as "the plant that ate the South", a reference to how kudzu's explosive growth has been most prolific in the southeastern United States due to nearly ideal growing conditions. Significant sums of money and effort are spent each growing season to prevent kudzu from taking over roads, bridges, power lines, and local vegetation.
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