The non-native species Pueraria lobata, commonly known as kudzu (or sometimes mile-a-minute weed, but it is not the same plant as in this blogpost), is a creeping, climbing legume vine from japan and china. “Kudzu” literally means ‘plant’ in Japanese. Like most invasive species, kudzu is considered a noxious weed in our part of the world. The ecological damage caused by this plant is solely due to its ability to out-compete neighboring species for resources such as light. As it grows over other plants, its large leaves blocks sunlight and often plants beneath the kudzu are suffocated.
|"The Vine that ate the south." Kudzu invasion in forest. |
Creative Commons image by Frank DiBona on Flickr.
In its home countries, however, it has proven to be a herbal remedy for a variety of troubles such as hair loss and alcoholism. Such two-sided traits beautifully sum up the contradiction of invasive species. Though malicious in some environments, invasive species can be used to our benefit in other area. As seen in our last post about invasives, significant efforts have been put in to mitigate these weeds. However, recent research has shown that some of their characteristics could be beneficial to society.
How did kudzu get here? In 1876, during the US’ 100th birthday exposition in Philadelphia, the Japanese government constructed a native Japanese garden for the exhibit. The imagery of the leaves appealed to many American gardeners leading to the vast spread of kudzu in local gardens as ornamental plants from a Florida nursery that propagated and sold the plant. Kudzu was also actively promoted as a forage plant and soil conservation plant in the US during 1930s and 1940s. But it didn’t stay in gardens and on roadsides, it quickly escaped and took over the native forest.
In addition to this, the US Armed Forces used kudzu as camouflage for equipment in Vanuatu and Fiji in the Pacific. Needless to say, the plant has become classified as an “unwanted organism” in these countries too.
The root, flower and leaf from kudzu are used to make herbal medicines. In Traditional Chinese medicine, the use of natural resources is the norm. In fact, the use of herbal-based medication is still a leading treatment for disease in many areas of the world. Kudzu is noted to have been used in Chinese medicine before 600 AD. Its uses range from treatments of menopause symptoms, muscle pain, stomach pain, fever, diarrhea, sinus infections, high blood pressure, to irregular heartbeat, chest pain and various other illnesses.
Despite its popularity on the Asian continent, the herbal remedy from kudzu has so far lacked sufficient scientific evidence to prove any effects. So can this weed actually help the medical world?
Kudzu promises a remedy for an illness of much importance to society. It has been used to “cure” alcoholism, or more accurately, decrease the symptoms of drinking and the urge to do so. In 2012 Penetar et al published a study conducted at McLean (a hospital affiliated with Harvard University) on kudzu’s effects on alcohol consumption. It was found that physiologically, kudzu can increase the blood flow to the brain and heart. “Wherever blood goes, alcohol goes”, states professor Scott Lukas on the research team. The theory is that this allows for a quicker response time, and the ability for the body to have enough alcohol in less time. Simply put, you get drunk faster on less alcohol.
First tested on rodents, the intake of alcohol decreased significantly in the lab results when they were given kudzu. When tested on humans, the group treated with kudzu drank significantly less than the placebo group. The research states that alcohol consumption was almost cut in half!
More research into the how’s and why’s of such effects could lead to very improtant discoveries regarding potential contributions of this invasive species to medicine.
Check out an old poem written on this historic weed!