Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I have previously written about Hedge Bindweed, which is the big white-flowered vine that is currently trying to infiltrate my garden over the back fence. But today, I wanted to sing the praises of a smaller, more delicate flower. If I saw it in the garden centre, with its candy-pink and white flowers, I would be very tempted to buy it. Unfortunately, it is designated as a ‘weed’, and although not quite as enthusiastic as its large-blossomed cousin, it can certainly cover a fair area in a short period of time.
I spotted this example at Woodberry Wetland, a brilliant new nature reserve in north London that I shall be writing about soon. But it is also happily growing through the brambles in the cemetery, so within my half-mile ‘territory’. It is a native plant to the UK, but was introduced to North America, as far back as 1739. It probably arrived in the New World amidst contaminated grain seed, but it has made itself very much at home, and is considered a serious Invasive Species there. It is very difficult to eradicate as the seeds can lay dormant for up to 20 years, and are often spread far afield by birds. Plus, like so many of the Convulvulus family, it has fragile roots which break easily. As the plant can grow from the tiniest fragment, this is not a happy situation if you were hoping to be Bindweed free. I speak from experience when I say that if you turn your back for a second, the little fingers of bindweed will wrap around your plants and head skyward, turning well-behaved borders into a tangled mass.
But, truly, what exquisite flowers this plant has. The pink and white pattern has always reminded me of a striped Venetian glass goblet, and it must also have struck a chord with the Brothers Grimm, because here, in full, is a short story about this plant.
Once upon a time a waggoner’s cart which was heavily laden with wine had stuck so fast that in spite of all that he could do, he could not get it to move again. Then it chanced that Our Lady just happened to come by that way, and when she perceived the poor man’s distress, she said to him, “I am tired and thirsty, give me a glass of wine, and I will set thy cart free for thee.” “Willingly,” answered the waggoner, “but I have no glass in which I can give thee the wine.” Then Our Lady plucked a little white flower with red stripes, called field bindweed, which looks very like a glass, and gave it to the waggoner. He filled it with wine, and then Our Lady drank it, and in the self-same instant the cart was set free, and the waggoner could drive onwards. The little flower is still always called Our Lady’s Little Glass.
I note that field bindweed has been used for a variety of purposes in North America. The Okanagan-Colville tribe(from southern British Columbia and northern Washington state) very sensibly used the stems of the plant to tie up small game so that it could be easily carried home. The Pomo tribe used a decoction of the plant for period pains, and the Navajo used it for spider bites. In the UK, it has been used as a mild diuretic and laxative.
Edible uses for the plant are few and far between, maybe because the plant contains a number of potentially toxic alkaloids. However, the Eat the Weeds website mentions that the plant is eaten in some countries, usually after being boiled first. Rather more pleasantly, it mentions that in some regions of Spain, the flowers are sucked for their sweet nectar.
In the comments section of The Cottage Smallholder website post on Bindweed, there are some interesting thoughts on how field bindweed was once used as a cottage garden plant, in particular to cover things buildings, such as outside toilets, which weren’t very attractive. There are also many thoughts on the plant’s laxative properties, so possibly there is some sympathetic magic going on here! But one thing that is also clear is that field bindweed is a plant of disturbed soil, a real opportunist, and something which helps to protect bare soil when it’s first exposed. I wonder if the seeds at Woodberry Wetlands have been waiting for years for their moment in the sun, and have appeared following the making of the paths and earth banks in the reserve. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
Now, as you know I do like to shoehorn some culture into the Wednesday Weed wherever possible, so here, for your delectation, is a painting by Ford Madox Brown, a Pre-Raphaelite painter who, by a delightful coincidence, is buried is St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I go for my fox-watching. In the painting above, a rather nasty child is seen chastising her bloodhound by walloping it with a stem of love-lies-bleeding. The young woman on the stairs is supposed to be the same child at a later point in her life, and she is being cruel to her poor suitor who languishes behind her. And, clambering around the banister is a rather botanically-inaccurate depiction of bindweed. The meaning of this plant in the Victorian Language of Flowers? ‘Extinguished Hopes’.
Interestingly, there is a truth here: children who are cruel to animals frequently end up being cruel to humans, and indeed this kind of behaviour is, these days, a ‘red flag’ for social workers and teachers. I find it fascinating that this has been recognised for so long, and yet I often see the tormenting of animals being explained away as ‘children being children’. For sure, sometimes children are just too young to understand that an animal is a separate being with feelings of its own, but sometimes the behaviour is symptomatic of something more sinister. Maybe we would have a few less abominable adults if sadism was recognised as the unacceptable thing that it is when people were young enough to be changed.
I’m reluctant to leave my study of this pretty plant on such a sad note, however, so here is a painting of the Madonna and Child by Vincenzo Malo, a Flemish painter who worked with Rubens. Here, the Madonna holds a sprig of bindweed in her hand, which represents her steadfastness to God’s will, and her charity. Plants can change their meanings for humans from age to age, from culture to culture, and yet they just carry on doing what they need to do to survive, in spite of our strange upheavals and crises. I think that one of the reasons that I love ‘weeds’ so much is their resilience in the face of change. They really are the unsung heroes of the plant world.
All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!