What on earth is this post about? This is after all a blog about gardens, designed landscapes and sometimes plants and their history. If you’re from a rural background and of the right age to remember children’s country games you might well know what the title refers to. But if you’re not here are some more clues: it’s a plant sometimes known elsewhere as old man’s nightcap, thunder flowers, scammony or Our Lady’s little glass.
Still none the wiser? I bet its one of those plants you definitely DON’T want. If you’ve got it be prepared for a long losing battle because when I googled it almost every reference was to ways of eradicating it, with the admission that it was well nigh impossible…and unfortunately I’ve just spotted it beginning its assault all round my garden.
It is of course….
For such a little plant it has such a big reputation, and for gardeners at least most of it terrible. There are two main sorts in Britain. Hedge Bindweed,[ Calystegia sepium formerly Convolvulus sepium], has large pure white trumpet flowers and twines itself around anything that it encounters, looking beautiful in flower but choking it in the process. That didn’t stop it being grown, in medieval times, as an ornamnetal plant. Its smaller relative, Field Bindweed [Convolvulus arvensis] has white or pink flattened trumpets flowers and can be problematic in long grass and bare soil or as John Gerard put it in his Herbal of 1597 ” hurtful unto each thing that groweth next to them’. The names were given by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753. Convolvulus is from the Latin convolva, to twine around, as in the English convoluted while arvensis, means of cultivated fields.
There are many other kinds of bindweed in Britain too in particular in addition to these two native species, many gardens now house giant bindweed Calystegia silvatica which is a non-native plant originally growing in the Mediterranean. It was introduced as an ornamental creeper in about 1815 and surprise surprise within a few decades had escaped and is now naturalised hybridised with hedge bindweed fully, so it isn’t really worth fussing about which one is annoying you in your garden.
The photographs of bindweeds in this post all come from Weed Images
Bindweeds have now reached virtually every corner of the world, mainly through accidental introduction via both agricultural and horticultural seed. As so often the taxonomy is complicated and constantly evolving. [For more on this see Key to the Bindweeds.] In some ways more important, and certainly, more annoying is the confusion to be found on the internet where Hedge and Field Bindweeds are often confused and images misidentified.
They are, however, all members of the huge Convulvulacae family which includes about 60 genera and more than 1,650 species. Amongst them are the sweet potato and a few other food tubers, Ipomoea or morning glory and several other reasonably well-known non-invasive ornamentals, particularly some of the shrubby species.
The English word “byndweede” was first used in print by William Turner in Names of Herbes in 1548: “Convolvulus — in english withwynde or byndeweed– wyndeth it self about herbes and busshes”.2. In his 1562 Great Herbal he has a lovely description of it as “an vnperfyt worke of nature lerning to make lilies” which might explain one of its nicknames: poor man’s lilies.
These days bindweed is unpopular with gardeners and farmers alike but it hasn’t always been so, because like so many wild plants, it has a long history of use in medicine. From Dioscorides who said it healed wounds and stopped internal bleeding to Medieval herbals which suggested it as a purgative. It was also thought to help with a range of other ailments such as insomnia, confusion, and venereal disease…as well as spider bites. A pretty impressive catalogue for a single weed.
John Gerard didn’t agree and dismissed the native bindweeds as ‘not fit for medicine’ but he also mentions both new world “blew bindweed” or what we would commonly call morning glory and a Mediterranean variety, Scammony [Convolvulus scammonia].
This was recommended by Nicholas Culpepper because ‘although it does not grow as large in England as abroad. The juice of the root is hardened and is the Scammony of the shops. The best Scammony is black, resinous and shining when in a lump, but of a whitish ash when powdered. It has a strong smell but not a very hot taste, turning milky when touched by the tongue… an extract made from the expressed juice of the roots has the purgative quality.’
It was still being promoted for that in the 18thc. John Hill in his British Herbal of 1756 for example talks of it being useful “in the country where peoples constitutions are rough and milder medicines not to be had, but it is not worth bringing into the shops. It’s clearly a widespread property within the Bindweed family because the seeds of another species Ipomoea nil, was also used as a laxative in Chinese medicine
Was it a hangover from these earlier medical claims that inspired Dr Jayne, an American company selling over the counter medicines in the late 19thc to advertised their Expectorant (containing opium), “Tonic Vermifuge”, ” Sanative Pills” and “Liniment” which were supposed to cure everything from colds, coughs, and incipient consumption, to asthma, pleurisy, whooping cough and worms, using a young woman smelling hedge bindweed?
Nevertheless, as so often, there was a measure of truth in some of these claims with modern science identifying the constituent ingredients including jalapin, dihydroxy cinnamic acid, beta-methylesculetin, ipuranol, — which do indeed “flush out” the system.
Its also worth knowing that if you gather wheelbarrows full during your weeding you can use the fleshy white roots as a dye which gives a solid deep yellow colour. Of course there are other plants that do that too and don’t need to choke their neighbours!
A more probable reason for the use of bindweed in the advert is that, despite being horticultural a nuisance, in its various forms, particularly the colourful forms of ipomaea, it had become a stock design feature. Its elegant appearance made it a suitable subject for designers of fabrics, wallpapers, ceramics, jewellery and even household items.
This is clearly not a gardening advice column but the question I’m sure many of you are asking is how the hell do I get rid of it? I frequently ask myself the same question since it invades my garden from the surrounding fields, or more recently arrived in a load of manure that my farming neighbour brought round. No sign of of course at first but tiny shreds of white root must have survived their passage through his cows and remerged invigorated in my polytunnel and potager. It is clearly a problem that has plagued gardeners for millenia. Philip Miller in his Gardeners Dictionary 1754 identifies 34 different sorts of convolvulus – most of them ornamental but the first two he lists are the ones we call weeds.
“The first is a very troublesome weed in gardens, especially under hedges, or amongst the roots of trees, where by its creeping roots it increases very fast… and will spread as far above ground overbearing whatever planted comes near. The only remedy that I know of to destroy this plant is by often hoeing of it down.” But there is worse to come. “The second sort of which there are great variety of different coloured flowers .. for the Rootes of this kind insinuates themselves into the gravel many feet deep and greatly increase underground rising and spreading its branches over everything near it. There is no other methods to destroy, than having often or pulling it up by hand which will in time subdue it but this can’t be done under three or four years, if attended to with all possible care.”
This might explain why in the language of flowers, which developed in the 19thc hedge bindweed was used to represent insinuation and/or importunity while field bindweed meant humility…and obstinacy.
Miller was right. As the RHS stress in an understated way in its gardening advice: bindweed is “not easy to remove” largely because it has extensive and really deep root systems – up to 20ft for hedge bindweed – and can grow from any small fragment if they get broken or disturbed.” This is its main means of propagation but it rarely produces seed. Field bindweed on the other hand not only spreads by roots but also freely by seed. Each plant can spread rapidly to cover up to 30 square yards in a single season, and can easily produce more than 500 seeds. These have lengthy viability – up to 28 years has been recorded.
The solution to clearing bindweed is becoming more and more difficult to find. Despite all its many downsides glyphosate [often sold as Round Up] was extremely effective, but is now being banned for its harmful side-effects. This comes into force across Europe by the end of this year, although not yet in UK. Even that took a while and was best achieved by getting the bindweed to climb up a cane painting its leaves with the chemical, covering it to keep the rain off and leaving for several weeks for it to work its way down to all of its subterranean root system.
Everything else is much harder work and almost certainly less effective. Repeated cutting of the stems rather than yanking them out of the ground prevents the roots breaking and will over a long period weaken and then eventaully kill the plant. But it’s hard work and needs to be done frequently or the plant recovers. The old favourite of smothering with black plastic or old carpet can be partially successful but the roots continue spreading underneath it and don’t need light to send out shoots. They can travel long distance in search of an escape route, and can survive underneath such a cover for many many months if not several years. If it’s in a border or round an established tree or shrub digging, boiling water or flame throwering are virtually impossible. In other words it might be a case of learning that you can’t eliminate it effectively, so you might just have to cope with trying to keep it under control and learn to live with it.
After all that you might be surprised, if not shocked, that not everyone has always wanted to eradicate bindweed, although to be fair most of them were probably children. If you were bought up playing traditional games or learned traditional rhymes you might remember squeezing the calyx or seedpod which would make the flower open and “pop.” I seem to remember that works with fuchsia buds too. Ian Morton writing in Country Life last summer recorded a whole host of names/rhymes that were chanted while you were doing it: “In south London, where the blooms were called poor man’s lilies, it was ‘Nanny goat, nanny goat, pop out of bed’.
In Dorset and Bedfordshire, you would hear ‘Granny, granny, pop out of bed’. In Hampshire, it was ‘Lazy Maisie, jump out of bed’. Shropshire folk called them thunder flowers because a storm was believed to follow if they were picked. A Cornish name for the plant was pingle-wingles. In parts of lowland Scotland, it was known as young man’s death, for if a girl picked a bloom, her boyfriend was doomed… In Ireland, the plant is called cornbind, ropeweed, Jack-run-the-country, the Devil’s garters and the tormentor.”
Other local names I’ve tracked down are corn lily in Yorkshire, creeping Jenny in Somerset, devils guts in Norfolk, fairy trumpets in Dorset, milkmaid in Surrey and Sussex and robin-run-the-hedge in Ireland. Field bindweed has amongst its unique local names, bell-bind in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk, granny’s nightcap in Wiltshire, way weed in Oxfordshire and withy in Dorset.
A more romantic name comes from Germany, with the story being told by the Brothers Grimm, in Children’s Legends, a sort of appendix to their famous Fairy Stories published in 1819. A very short story tells how a wagoner’s cart heavily laden with barrels of wine got stuck in a rut on a muddy tack and no matter what the poor man tried he couldn’t get it to move. As if by magic the Virgin Mary happened to be passing and saw his distress. She is reputed to have said “I am tired and thirsty, give me a glass of wine and I will set thy cart free for thee.” Sadly the carter had to reply that although he would willingly do so, he had no glass in which to offer the wine. Mary reached down and picked a little white flower with pink stripes – a field bindweed – and offered it to him to fill. No sooner had he done so than “in the selfsame instant the cart was free” and the little flower became known as Muttergottesgläschen or Our Lady’s Little Glass.
Lets try and end on a more positive note because on the wildlife front bindweeds do have a few good things going for them. Calystegia sepium was regularly eaten by Maori in New Zealand, while in parts of Europe and Asia young Field bindweed leaves were used, although more sparingly in food, although none of the recipes I’ve seen seem particularly enticing.
Field bindweed also plays host to over 80 herbivorous insects including many moths, and notably the convolvulus hawk moth Agrius convolvuli.
Although hedge bindweed has far fewer associated species it also feeds the large elephant hawk moth Deilephila elpenor as well as the convolvulus hawk moth.
….and of course bindweeds gave Cecily Mary Baker a couple of good opportunities to create flower fairies…
O long long stems that twine!
O buds, so neatly furled!
O great white bells of mine,
(None purer in the world)
Each lasting but one day!
O leafy garlands, hung
In wreaths beside the way—
Well may your praise be sung!