Favorite Friday: Even bindweed brings gifts

Bindweed is thick and happy right now—at its seasonal height—and gardeners are scrambling to keep it under control. A year ago at this time I wondered: If every being serves some positive purpose, what might bindweed be contributing? The post sparked a lively conversation in the comments, and one astute reader corrected my starting point: the bindweed we dig out of our gardens is NOT native to this area. But even so, it has been used by native people for many medicinal purposes, which you can find at the end of the post.

It’s the bane of gardeners throughout the arid West—Bindweed twining up yucca leafthe boa constrictor of the weed world, twirling nasty vines around other plants, stretching its stringy rhizomes underground for what appear to be miles. Gardeners in Boulder joke that “it’s all just one bindweed,” impossible to get rid of. Here it is ascending a blooming yucca near my house, circling counterclockwise as it always does up a stem. It is said that bindweed can complete one circle in two hours. Talk about a blight!

In the native plant garden at Chautauqua, the other volunteers and I spend hours digging it out, trying to prevent it from choking out the precious native wildflowers. All, it seems, to no avail. Bindweed is a public enemy—out to take over the world.

Or is it?

As I was sitting in the dirt at Chautauqua digging with a Japanese hori—nothing less than this wicked, six-inch, serrated blade like a hunting knife will do for tackling the underground runners—I started wondering about our nemesis.

If bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis L.) is native—and it is, despite the fact that we dig it out of the native garden—what services might it be providing to the ecosystem? You have to think that since it coevolved with all the other grasses, flowers, and animals of the region, it must be doing some good. What does it contribute to sustaining life?

The first clue came from our naturalist leader, Dave Sutherland. “Bindweed likes disturbed soil,” he says. The plant is opportunistic. It takes advantage of damage to the surface, running its surface vines quickly over bulldozed, plowed, and trampled earth. We can view opportunism as a vice, and the tone people use when they say this about a plant or a predator often carries more than a hint of disdain. But there is another way to look at it. I think of the bindweed I saw last week along the edge of a trail, rich with its pinkish morning-glory blooms:

bindweed filling edge of a dirt road.JPGThis ground was disturbed by building a road. The bindweed is rushing in to fill in the gap in ground cover. I was impressed by the evenness of its march, as if it was intending to spread itself like a mat across the naked soil. It knows what heedless humans didn’t when they cleared the prairies to plant grains—that disturbed soil will blow away into dust. That especially in the arid climates of the western United States, soil is precious and, because it is dry so much of the time, must be guarded by vegetative cover. So:

Gift #1: Bindweed guards the soil.

No surprise, then, that to control bindweed on a large scale, plant ground covers. Do the job of bindweed so it doesn’t have to work so hard. This site from the UK reports planting a common ground cover to discourage bindweed in vineyards. When the ground is protected, bindweed is less aggressive.

In fact, says herbalist John Slattery of Desert Tortoise Botanicals in Arizona, an overgrowth of bindweed is evidence that the soil has been mistreated—exposed by road cuts or housing developments, trampled or dug up or bulldozed. It turns out that bindweed is especially fond of cultivated land because the plant thrives in nitrogen-rich environments, such as croplands, suburban yards, and gardens—all thick with fertilizers. So:

Gift #2: Bindweed indicates the health of the soil.

Too much bindweed—evidence of soil out of balance.

My friend Molly Bigknife Antonio alerted me to a further gift of the plant. Molly and her husband, Gino, through their nonprofit Pollen Circles lead summer camps in Navajo land training kids in traditional skills and knowledge. When Molly gave a presentation at Prescott College in April, I was astonished to see a slide of bindweed—prized for its traditional medicinal uses. For details she sent me to John Slattery, who pulled together the ethnobotanical info. Turns out bindweed is used to help digestive ailments, spider bites, skin disorders, and excessive menstrual bleeding (more info below). Traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) is a good place to turn for finding redeeming value in even pesky weeds. So:

Gift #3: Bindweed is traditionally used as medicine for a variety of ailments.

But wait, there’s more! Western scientists too have been studying bindweed and finding it effective against cancer tumors. Here’s how it works: tumors enlarge by growing blood vessels (angiogenesis) so they can import more life-giving blood. One promising avenue of cancer research is finding substances that inhibit the growth of a tumor’s blood vessels (antiangiogenesis). A tincture of bindweed root seems to do just that. This study (unpublished?) showed a nontoxic form of the tincture shrinking tumors in mice. So:

Gift #4: Bindweed may help shrink tumors.

I find it interesting that what bindweed appears to do maliciously in gardens—choke the life out of plants—may be exactly what it does medicinally when used in the right proportion—inhibit unwanted growth. Its gift may reside in its curse. This public enemy, from a different perspective, may be one of our greatest friends.

The magic of this world—hiding gifts in weaknesses, disguising friends as enemies—at work in every square inch of the earth.

Even in bindweed.

For more info:

Thanks to John Slattery of Desert Tortoise Botanicals for documenting these uses of bindweed from the traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) of American Indians:

  • Navajo, Ramah (Dermatological Aid)Cold infusion of plant taken and used as a lotion for spider bites.Vestal, Paul A. 1952. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology 40(4):1-94 (39).
  • Navajo, Ramah (Gastrointestinal Aid)Cold infusion taken with food after swallowing a spider.Vestal, Paul A. 1952. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho. Papers of the Peabody Museum of AmericanArchaeology and Ethnology 40(4):1-94 (39).
  • Pomo (Gynecological Aid)Decoction of plant taken for excessive menstruation.Gifford, E. W. 1967. Ethnographic Notes on the Southwestern Pomo. Anthropological Records 25:10-15 (15).
  • Pomo, Kashaya (Gynecological Aid)Decoction of stem with leaves taken for excessive menstruation.Goodrich, Jennie, and Claudia Lawson. 1980. Kashaya Pomo Plants. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California (73).
  • Okanagan-Colville (Cordage)Stems used as a pack rope for carrying birds and marmots home after hunting.Turner, Nancy, R. Bouchard, and D.I.D. Kennedy. 1980. Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum (96).
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