Valerie’s complex relationship with the morning glory family

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My wife, Valerie, cares for a sort of morning glory called moon flower. They bloom in the evening in late summer and early fall, three to four-inch white flowers that resemble the moon. The flowers can last until mid-morning in shaded places but wither quickly in sunlight. The sap of the plant was used in Mesoamerica to manufacture bouncing five-pound balls made of latex from rubber trees. The sulfurous sap of the Moon Flowers (Ipomoea alba) kept the heavy balls soft enough to bounce. The Mesoamericans, according to archaeologists, were obsessed with the games.  It was a brutal sport, associated with beheadings in Mayan wall art.

The Mesoamericans lived in a world where greenery covered everything, and they actively experimented to find uses for the abundant materials. They hybridized maize, a grass that they selectively bred into the fat-kernel cobs that sustained them. There is a lot more wall art featuring corn than ball games.

There is a plant that can overwhelm a garden that appears to be identical to the common morning glory (ipomoea).  The imitator is bindweed (convolvulus arvensis) that has roots that can extend as far as nine feet into the earth and spread horizontally until they can’t. Aboveground, they are identical to the shallow-rooted morning glories. Bindweed grows at an amazing rate, sending tendrils by the dozen that can grow several inches every day. Almost 20 years ago, the nice people who used to live in the house next door unknowingly planted a perennial bindweed by the fence.   

The morning glory family is large with native varieties thriving on every continent. The ancestor of the bindweed originated in Europe, brought over in the 16th century. One wonders why. Bindweed are classified as an invasive species that costs hundreds of millions of dollars annually to mitigate. It’s gone by many names, including creeping jenny and possession vine. Valerie spends a lot of time disentangling the tendrils from around the stems of every plant along the fence. Farmers hate it, so does Valerie. It is the single greatest villain in her garden.

On the other hand, she is fond of most members of the morning glory family, especially moon flowers, cardinal climbers (ipomoea multifida) and Cypress Vines (Ipomoea quamoclit). These shallow-root annuals can’t survive the Winter. Cardinal climbers and cypress vines look soft because of their dense fronds of delicate leaves and produce an abundance of small red and white flowers. All do nicely in containers or in the ground. Valerie places a few along the chain link to offer support for the vines.  She spends a lot of time disentangling the bindweed from the moon flowers, the cardinal climbers and the cypress vines. It’s a jungle out there.

In Chestnut Hill, most varieties flower in late Summer when the hours of sunlight and darkness start equalizing, at their most blossomy just before the Autumn Equinox. The common morning glory and bindweed are different – they blossom reliably every morning from early spring into summer. Morning glory is a good starter plant for novice gardeners who want to see fast results. The problem is that people sometimes plant bindweed because they don’t know the difference.

Valerie experimented this year, putting a cardinal climber and a cypress vine in the same pot in front of the porch.  The entangled vines whirl happily together, climbing the wire trellis and strings up to the eave above the porch, competing to be the tallest, to be the one to catch the most sunlight, to make the most flowers before it dies.

One of Valerie’s moon flower vines is growing on the fence along the sidewalk in front of the house. If you’re walking past at night or early morning in September, you are likely to see the big flowers facing west, toward the Highland Avenue station. They are pure, cool white that seems to glow in moonlight.  In Autumn, before the first frost, she collects seeds from ripe pods. In late winter, she plants them in germination pots that she keeps on the bench in a corner of the greenhouse. By May, when she puts them outside, they are a couple of inches tall. By late summer, if she has succeeded in keeping the bindweed off them, the moon flower vines can be up to ten feet long with big, heart-shaped leaves. Obedient annuals, all except the bindweed die back completely over the winter.  

The morning glory family are vigorous summer garden plants that reward you with flowers late in the growing season. Just be careful to get an annual variety that won’t survive the winter.    

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