EARLY OCTOBER, AT HOME, PiTTSBURGH, AND REMEMBERING A SOYBEAN FiELD iN LEXiNGTON
One of my favorite botanical events of the year happens on the cool mornings of fall, when the sun is bright and clear and after we have all trooped out the front door for work and school. The morning glories, after a whole summer of twining as tall as possible, finally show their first rich violet and fuchsia blooms. When we lived in an apartment in Chicago, we tied twines to hang down to the garden from the third-story porch above us, and in late September and early October the whole brick side of the building would be blooming with them. At our home in the suburbs, even if we can't train them to such heights, they're adaptable and climb up anything they can use to reach the morning sun. By Halloween night, after a frost, they are brown skeletons of stems, but in early October, they are jewels in the garden.
During my early childhood, before our shade trees grew to mature height, my dad managed to get a few morning glories blooming. I remember the flowers being the strong blue of a late-afternoon sky with cloud-white centers, which is a common color in cultivated morning glories. I learned only later, during my graduate studies in weed science (and as we might have learned with less effort by reading the seed packet), that morning glories bloom best in east light, and so I was in my twenties when I was able to explain to my dad why most of his attempts with morning glory were futile. He was planting them on the west side of a fence, and though under normal circumstances they would simply have wound themselves to the more hospitable side, the east side of this fence was deeply shaded. Dad is a third-generation academic — an economist at that—and so the kinds of things people learn growing up on farms, or even with grandparents on farms, are often lost on him.
Morning glories are in the same family as sweet potato—the common name for one species, Ipomoea pandurata, is wild potato vine. Their flowers come in a wide variety of colors, all rich: royal purple with fuchsia centers, brilliant red (Ipomoea coccínea), clear-water blue, and princess-dress pink. They seem to have no common medicinal use, though some kinds are apparently hallucinogenic if one takes some trouble to prepare them. I am aware from experience in my own garden that rabbits are fond of them, at least in the seedling stage. (At first, I couldn't believe it—if rabbits like them, how can they be a problem in crop fields? Then I realized rabbits don't really live in crop fields.) They are classified by the USDA as invasive and noxious weeds, though there are also a number of seed sources for them for gardeners. One linguistic issue I find interesting is that gardeners seem more likely to separate the words into "morning glory," whereas weed scientists are more likely to combine them (no pun intended) as "morningglory." I don't know if the difference is deliberate, but I do think the gardener version draws more attention to the meaning of the words, and therefore, the beauty of the plant.
An early surprise in my education about morning glories was that there are many species in the United States, though most of them, according to the weed maps, reside more commonly in the Deep South. Kentucky is a wonderful place to learn weed identification, because its climate is suitable for both northern and southern weed species. In the maps of weed ranges, Kentucky was often either at the northern or southern edge of their habitat. One of my first field experiences was early-morning soil sampling in a field of soybeans, deep green and dewy, with luxurious pockets of deep purple and pink morning glories tangled among their leaves. For that soybean experiment, they were a scourge, but they were the most beautiful scourge ever witnessed. That may have been the moment I decided I could enjoy weed science.
Another morning glory surprise was that species identification is critical to their herbicidal control. My undergraduate experience was focused on the evolutionary familial relationships among plants, so I assumed that genetics carried some significant weight in weed control chemistry. With morning glories, however, even siblings may be struck down by entirely different chemistries, so weed identification is critical for either the student or the farmer. Ivyleaf morning glory (Ipomoea hederacea) and common, or tall, morning glory (Ipo-moea purpurea) are difficult to distinguish in seedling stage—and yet misidentification can lead to failure of a chosen herbicide to control the plant.
However, one odd side effect of the spread of RoundupReady® crop seed is that weed identification is less important than it once was, because the herbicide Roundup is effective on such a wide range of weeds. I suspect that the need to cultivate the ability to distinguish these two morning glories is not as strongly emphasized now as it was when I took my courses in weed science. At that time, one of my fellow graduate students had already earned summer money identifying weeds for farmers as a field scout. The job market for this position must be smaller now, since subtle differences among morning glory species don't matter if they're both going to be sprayed with the same product. I find this a strangely sad loss, because the fact that the job of field scout existed at least suggested to me that plant identification, a skill I have long enjoyed, could be practical, even professional. I have earned money in a variety of jobs since then, even for identifying and measuring trees, but I have yet to earn a cent from identifying a weed. I suppose I can't really blame Roundup for that, but I can certainly try.
Why kill them at all, if they're so beautiful? I naively asked myself this question when I saw that stunning purple and green soybean field, and perhaps I even spoke the words aloud, because I remember my advisor explaining the problem. Although many weeds interfere with crops by taking water and light and nutrients from the soil — weeds can be more efficient than the crops themselves at hogging resources — morning glory poses an additional problem: it obstructs progress during harvest. A combine passing through a row crop such as corn or soybean seems like an all-powerful machine, but vines in particular can make plants and even whole sections of rows stick together, leaving the combine unable to separate the seeds from the plants. Also, the morning glories don't die before the soybeans mature, so while soybeans are dry, with brown stalks ready to harvest (beans popping noisily off like popcorn when one walks through the field in dry weather), the morning glories remain green and flexible, as much an impediment to machine harvesting as baling twine or fishing line would be. In this case, these gorgeous vines are simply a nuisance.
The same complaint applies to many botanically interesting viney species. In addition to morning glory, bindweeds (the genus is Convolvulus, not Ipomoea, but they're in the same family) have large white or pink flowers, at least an inch in diameter (field bindweed) but possibly up to three inches in diameter (hedge bindweed). These, too, twine around other plants, tangling them together as well as blocking light. Bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) is one I have to admire for being a weedy member of a very domesticated family—the black sheep of the cucurbit family, embarrassing to the productive, honest cucumbers and squashes and pumpkins of the world. And finally, maypop passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) was the most wonderful surprise of my life in soybean weed identification, which I found on my first day identifying weeds in a soybean field in Bardstown, Kentucky. Supposedly, it is not rare—no plant in a weed identification guide is really rare—but I have seen it again only once, in a different soybean field in Bardstown. Its stigma, the female part, looks like a three-part whirligig taking off from a helicopter pad of grassy yellow anthers; the petals, tending toward audacious purples, fan out beneath like a daisy gone wild. I distinctly remember studying a passionflower in my Harvard botany lab, and I never, ever imagined I would see one wild in a soybean field. Wonderful, surprising vines all, but tangling climbers are evil to the orderly requirements of a combine. In the garden, I have mixed feelings about the bindweeds. These are perennial, and if you decide to get rid of them without an herbicide, well, good luck. And what's more, if you did spray, it would be impossible to hit the bindweed without collateral damage (possibly death) to your garden plant. The only way to use herbicide would be to wipe it on the leaves. Their roots tend to go deep and twine into soil in unpredictable directions, so they are virtually impossible to pull. A healthy bindweed plant can cover and smother a shrub, and if bindweed were growing on my heirloom tomatoes, I'd pull it as many times as it took to make it die for good. On the other hand, they boast huge, showy white flowers. The one bindweed we have grows on a clematis trellis. Frankly the poor clematis in that spot seems to be too shaded to thrive, whereas the bindweed shamelessly produces its huge white flowers, like a younger sister shouting out words while her big brother tries to learn to read with mom. Who am I to decide that the clematis should have all my admiration?
The morning glories we host this year are in full bloom through mid-October on the chilly, dew-covered stalks of goldenrod. They have grown over our peony bushes, graciously covering their spotted leaves at a time when the peonies would otherwise be at their worst. They are twining around a couple of dwarf evergreens in our front yard, but no matter—they're not perennial, and the frost will kill them soon enough. Perhaps if I were a commercial Christmas tree grower I would need to stop them. Morning glories even peek through the vegetation in our thin woodland, though they are not particularly shade tolerant.
These flowers die seemingly within moments when picked, and each bloom lasts only for a morning. Morning glories can be a consolation prize on cold, wet days in fall because the blooms last longer in dank weather. I try to encourage the girls not to pick flowers for me, in general. I tell them they can pick flowers for themselves or each other, but I personally like the flowers outside, where they'll last longer. For morning glories, though, there is no "longer" — so when my daughter picks one for me on our way to the bus stop, I
am happy to enjoy the bloom for the few minutes of our walk down the street, knowing it would be closed before I returned from work anyway.
Though my dad has gardened little in recent years, he finally had a bit of luck with morning glories. The neighbors on the east side of my parents' house put in a new fence, and it has a bit of latticework at the top. So now, Dad can plant morning glory seeds at the base of this fence, and at the end of the season, the morning glories, which have grown on the neighbor's side all summer, finally offer a peek of some blooms for him to enjoy. I don't imagine that my first weed science professor—a man who spent miserable summers hoeing weeds from peanuts and corn as a teenager and for whom herbicides are unquestionably a bit of divine inspiration—would be very pleased with this book. But whatever I did or didn't learn from my professors in weed science, I did at least learn enough to be able to tell my dad where to plant his morning glories. When I see our own morning glories each fall, I feel grateful to this plant, which volunteers its blooms as bright jewels on the cool mornings of the waning garden.
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