OK, not always.
But learning about foraging inexorably leads to learning about local ecosystems, the rhythms of the natural world, and what an ecological invasion looks like.
Several years ago – spring of 2018, actually – I explored a public trail near where my kids attended school. Slightly off the trail, I discovered massive tangled vines covering the trees and shrubs in a nearby field. Well, I assume there was a field under all the vegetation! At the time, I photographed (badly) interesting items on the trail using a new-to-me DSLR; the photo of the field fails to capture the enormity of the mess.
I used to live in North Carolina eons ago, before I knew or cared about identifying plants. But surveying this field, something in the back of my mind screamed: kudzu (Pueraria montana).
I meant to return later in the season and check the trail again. Fast forward 2+ years. Reading a recent issue of Grit magazine, I found an article with recipes for kudzu flowers and I remembered the trail. Not like I’m planning to cook with kudzu flowers, since jelly, sorbet, and lemonade all use way more sugar than I prefer. But it tickled my memories of the trail, and I realized I had to know if it was really kudzu blanketing the area.
The Maryland Biodiversity Project website doesn’t list any sightings of this very invasive plant in my county. But even before I reached the trail, I turned my current favorite app, Seek, to the broad leaves smothering the trees close by. Sometimes Seek takes a painfully long time to make an identification, but not on this occasion: the three large alternate ovate leaves clearly marked this as kudzu.
If you hold still long enough, you can almost see the vines growing toward you …
Once on the trail itself, the perfume-like fragrance of the flowers was immediately noticeable. I was perhaps a week late for optimal flower bloom, as purple petals carpeted the forest floor.
Here is the field again, with the technology of a smart phone rather than the DSLR camera that I never quite figured out how to use! Unlike most of my blog photos, you can click on this one to make it larger and see the magnitude of the ecological disruption.
I collected a handful of the flowers to bring home and show off, but most of the flowers that remained were out of reach. Plus, I didn’t want to be too obvious with taking the flowers, although I saw almost no one else on the trail. Should I have taken them at all? Probably not, since it was a public area; but since it was near the end of their blooming season anyway, I didn’t think anyone would miss the few I collected.
In addition to edible flowers, kudzu offers both spring leaves to use in cooking (think quiche, or mixing it with other, more strongly-flavored greens), and tubers to harvest in the fall. In Japan, where kudzu originated, it is grown specifically for the roots which can be processed to make a thickener. (Apparently kudzu root has possible health properties as well.)
The tubers intrigue me most. As I mentioned last week, I’m actively researching local replacements for imported staples. Since I don’t eat (okay, since I only rarely eat) grains, I avoid the typical cooking thickeners like cornstarch and wheat flour. The usual substitutes, tapioca flour and arrowroot flour, primarily come from South America meaning they could be easily impacted by supply chain disruptions.
Only thing is … it’s one thing to walk along a trail and snip a few flower clusters here and there. Digging up tubers? That takes too long and would be too invasive (ironically) for me to comfortably forage the kudzu tubers later this year. Too bad, really, since the trail clearly needs help getting their kudzu infestation under control!
One thing I will NOT do: bring some kudzu to intentionally cultivate for the roots! While I am a big fan of reverse foraging (aka, planting typical foraging specimens in my garden or edible landscaping), kudzu (like Japanese knotweed) is too high risk, whatever the edible rewards!
****UPDATED TO ADD, kudzu is often sprayed with herbicides in the (often futile) attempt to eradicate it. Be very careful to not forage herbicide-sprayed kudzu (or anything else)!