Even kudzu can be useful, VMNH festival-goers told

June 6, 2011

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A fast-growing weed that can be a nuisance for landowners actually can be useful as a craft material as well as food, according to Nancy Basket.

The Walhalla, S.C., woman uses kudzu vines to make crafts such as animal sculptures, paper wall ornaments, cloths and, yes, baskets. She turns kudzu into soap, uses the edible leaves in salads and turns the blossoms into jelly.

Basket even has made a ceiling out of kudzu for a restaurant in Las Vegas. Customers there “like the look of it, and it’s a conversation piece,” she said while showing her handiwork and discussing the plant’s usefulness during the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s “Living Off the Land” festival Saturday.

“I like being given an idea and making it come to life,” she said.

It is easy to split kudzu vines by hand, as well as tie knots in the vines and weave them into items, Basket said as she pulled a vine apart.

She makes paper out of kudzu basically by combining vines and water in a blender, pouring the resulting pulp into a pan, dropping a needlepoint screen into the pulp, soaking up excess water with a piece of felt and then allowing the material on the screen to dry.

Basket, who also makes crafts with pine needles, said she wanted to show festival-goers that they can make works of art out of things they can find in their backyards, or at least outdoors.

Visitors at one of the festival’s exhibits examined musical instruments made of bamboo. At another exhibit, children made maracas — a rattle-like musical instrument — out of tree branches and bottle caps.

The festival was part of a new exhibit of the same title that runs through Jan. 14 at the museum. The exhibit focuses on wildlife and things usually done outdoors, such as hunting, fishing and conservation of resources.

“I think it’s one of the best exhibits they’ve ever had,” said Natalie Harder of Martinsville, who came to the festival with her husband and son. Living off the land is something many people today do not think about, she said.

“I sincerely doubt,” Harder said, that she could live off the land for long, being a longtime city dweller.

But learning related skills, such as hunting and growing organic vegetables, could be beneficial, such as during a prolonged emergency when food might not be in ample supply, exhibitors said.

Another exhibitor was Smith Farms of Stoneville, N.C., which grows fruits and vegetables certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Owner Larry Smith said he wanted to participate in the festival to try to get new customers and “spread the word” about organic produce, which is hand-picked and grown without using pesticides.

“It has a better taste and flavor” due to the lack of chemicals, he said.

To be certified as organic, produce cannot be harvested by machines, and pests must be removed by hand, Smith said.

Because more human labor is involved in growing organic crops, the price of the produce typically is higher, he said, but many people do not mind it.

Eating organically is “a way of life,” Smith said. “You either believe in it (the concept) or you don’t.”

Other exhibitors included a taxidermist, wooden bird statue carvers and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Alton Dooley, associate curator of paleontology at the museum, showed archaeological findings from across southwest Virginia, including bones.

Museum officials did not have an attendance estimate Saturday afternoon. However, Special Events Manager Carolyn Seay said the crowd did not seem quite as large as officials anticipated. She said other activities that day, such as Magna Vista High School’s graduation and soccer games, could have hurt attendance a little.

Still, Seay said, “it’s a great day” anytime the museum gets an opportunity to educate people about natural history and the environment.


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