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Morning's Glory

By Audrey Stallsmith

ipomoea purga

A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

Walt Whitman," Leaves of Grass"

Unusual morning glories have become the latest rage on seed trading sites. As with the similarly showy daturas which were all the fashion before them, the modern morning glories spring from a very unpopular weed.

Gerard wrote of convolvulus that “it is not fit for medicine, an unprofitable weed and hurtful to each thing that groweth next to it, and only administered by runnagat physickmongers, quacksalvers, old women leeches, abusers of physick and deceivers of people.”

I understand his bitter tone. My brother, when he was quite young, once planted bindweed in one of our garden plots because he found it “pretty.” In late summer, when the impossible-to-eradicate interloper has strangled all other flowers in sight, I could happily strangle my brother!

The name convolvulus derives from the Latin convolvo which means “to twine around.” There are a large variety of these despised clingers-on in ever conceivable location. They include convolvulus sepium (hedge bindweed), convolvulus soldanella (sea bindweed) and—the one with which we are plagued—convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed).

Some say that it only takes the latter vine 1 ¾ hours to make a complete twist around the stem of a garden flower. That probably explains why the pernicious plant appears to take over within a matter of days. Bindweeds have also been known as calystegias as well as shepherd’s clock, cornbind, ropebind, withywood, bearwind, Jack-run-in-the-country, and devil’s garters.

Fortunately, the convolvulus family does have its share of more beautiful and less bullying members. Most modern morning glories are either ipomoea purpurea or ipomoea tricolor varieties. Ipomoea takes its name from the Greek ips (“bindweed”) and homois (“similar to”).

Morning glories have always been very popular in the Orient. In Japan, they are known as asagao or “morning face.” And some Japanese web sites show photos of exotic varieties that make we American gardeners drool with hopeless envy. Now that the plant is becoming so popular again in this country, however, perhaps seed companies will start importing more types.

In the meantime, if you find any old packages of now-rare varieties such as Wedding Bells or Cornell, don’t throw them out! Morning glory seeds remain viable for a very long time, and it’s possible that you still might be able to sprout a few of the antiques. (They germinate best if soaked overnight before planting.)

The plant received its name, of course, because it generally blooms in the AM and fades before noon. I plant ipomoeas along the east-facing wall of our barn’s feedroom, so that the early-rising farmers in the family can enjoy them even when a non-morning-person like me can’t!

Heavenly Blue remains the most popular of the “glories” for a reason. It was the most prolific bloomer of the 15 or so varieties I tried this year, and its very large flowers will often remain open into the afternoon on cool autumn days. If you’re searching for an equally vigorous companion for this one, try Blue Star. Although a much lighter blue, it also persists longer than most and the star in its center almost matches the heavenly shade.

“Chocolate” is also very popular, though more floppy. Its color is really more of a tan-ish pink than brown, but still unusual. The heirloom called Grandpa Ott’s (AKA Kniola’s Black) is probably the darkest morning glory. Though its blooms are smaller than the varieties listed above, its color is a glorious deep purple.

That site next to the barn has actually proved a little too fertile, since the vines produce huge leaves which often half-obscure the flowers. Morning glories prosper in a less rich, fast-draining soil. Drier conditions will also discourage the slugs that love to munch on the leaves. (Don’t let the plants get too parched, however, or you will just trade the slugs for spider mites!)

Because its period of bloom is so short, the morning glory stands for “departure” or “farewell” in the Language of Flowers. It also represents "affectation" or "pretense," though the reason for that is less clear. Perhaps its blooms are so large as to appear artificial?

Yams are actually the tuberous roots of a bindweed called convolvulus batatas. Another, convolvulus rhodorhiza, produces an oil called Rodium, which is used to lure rodents. And convolvulus dissectus is a source of prussic acid—AKA cyanide.

There are not, however, as Gerard pointed out, many medicinal uses for morning glory. The roots of some varieties such as convolvulus scammonia (AKA Syrian bindweed or scammony) have been used to treat constipation. They can be very violent purgatives, though, so it’s probably best to avoid them when there are much more pleasant remedies. The mashed leaves of morning glories will reportedly soothe swellings.

Both the Zapotec Indians and the Aztecs used ipomoea seeds to induce “religious” hallucinations. They would often, however, have experienced very unpleasant side effects—especially extreme nausea and diarrhea. As I mentioned above, the members of this family can be drastically laxative!

The chief “glory” of the flower remains its gorgeous, if all too fleeting, blooms. And, since the enjoyment of beauty can be calming and medicinal in itself, the modern bindweed may prove not so "unprofitable" after all!

Ipomoea purga image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden