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Sunday, January 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mission of the kudzu queen: Stop whine about a fine vine

The Associated Press

RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. - Edith Edwards picks the kudzu leaves one by one in the cool of the evening, piling them neatly as she thinks of the meals and medicines she can make from the shimmery green plant.

The vines, withering now, can be woven into fine wreaths and baskets. The roots, which hibernate until spring, can make a potent starch. She knows not to waste any parts.

"I would like to challenge the people of the Southeast to take all the kudzu vines that go up the trees, pull them out and put them to work," she says. "When Americans find out what they can do with kudzu, they will realize how valuable it is."

Kudzu valuable?

Over the past century, the vines have earned the appellation "Green Menace." Kudzu originally was spread to curb soil erosion on Southern farms. Too late, farmers found it was virtually unstoppable. The Forest Service estimates kudzu covers 7 million acres of the South, smothering everything in its path with green leaves and purple blossoms.

Southerners and scientists alike call the plant an annoying weed, "the vine that ate the South." Edith, the queen of kudzu, is more philosophical: "Lots of things are a nuisance. You just have to take control of it."

The 73-year-old farmer's wife has plumbed kudzu's potential for 30 years, and her business, Kudzu Konnection, is attracting attention across the South.

Edith and her husband, Henry, turn their 10 acres of kudzu into wreaths, baskets, potato chip-like snacks, quiche, tea, syrup, paper, furniture, medicines. They also feed it to horses and cattle on their 400-acre farm.

"It's a hobby grown into a business," she says, proudly fingering a glass jar of freshly made kudzu jelly. "We won't get rich, but we'll educate people, and it's fun."

Kudzu Konnection has been around about 15 years. Edwards incorporated the company the same year a Charlotte broadcaster dubbed her the "Kudzu Queen," a nickname that has extended to her family.

Her daughter, Caroline Edwards, 40, has been christened the "Kudzu Kid" after inheriting her mom's passion.

"It can be used for anything. You can build with it, you can eat it and it's a medicine," Caroline says. "But it took us 15 years to learn all this."

Edith remembers how it all began. She and her husband moved from Maryland to Rutherford County in 1961 to take over his parents' farm, where he was born. The couple moved into the old white frame house that has stood on the land since the turn of the century.

They began dairy farming, but a drought threatened their cows' forage. To supplement the grain, they turned to the only forage green: kudzu.

"We found out that it would be OK to feed it to the cattle," Edith recalls. "It pickled overnight, and the cows ate it like it was ice cream."

The drought also piqued a broader interest. Then the kudzu bible - "The Book of Kudzu" - came out in 1977, detailing an array of other uses for the vines and leaves. Edith has kept it in or near her kitchen for the past two decades.

"It took me about three years to get up the nerve to French-fry kudzu leaves and eat them," she says. "When I did, French-fried kudzu leaves are another world. They really are a treat."

The Edwardses have retired from dairy farming, but not from kudzu. They drink kudzu cider and use the leaves to season almost anything. They place kudzu root starch on the tongue to settle an upset stomach.

"My mother called it manna in the wilderness, and it really is," Edith says.

Edith and Henry's home attests to their love. Kudzu pamphlets and cookbooks cover every inch of the room. Each dining room chair holds a different kudzu creation or work in progress: baskets, wreaths, necklaces, jars of jelly.

Wearing a "North Carolina Kudzu Shirt," Edith proudly models a kudzu hat she has made, with a purple and green bow.

Caroline and her husband, Greg, live on her parents' farm and are kudzu missionaries, too. Throughout the South, the Kudzu Queen and Kudzu Kid host kudzu events, sit at kudzu educational booths and teach kudzu arts and crafts to schoolchildren.

"We're like this source of kudzu information," Caroline says, "because we're all there is." She figures her mother and she may have educated thousands, maybe even millions, but their work is far from done.

"It just takes people so long to see," says the elder Edwards, brushing the short, gray hair from her weathered face. "We are still getting the story out."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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