Even bindweed brings gifts

Bindweed twining up yucca leafIt’s the bane of gardeners throughout the arid West—the 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 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 American
    Archaeology 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).

19 Responses to Even bindweed brings gifts

  1. Hystery says:June 19, 2010 at 5:19 am

    Fascinating and informative. I have a soft spot for unwanted plants. There’s just something about “weeds”, especially native species, that makes me feel protective. If enough people agree that something is horrible, I generally figure they must be wrong! Plants, like people, are often misjudged by those who dislike creatures that serve their divine calling rather than the dictates of convention.

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:June 19, 2010 at 7:46 am

    What is a weed, after all, but a plant that humans think is out of place?

  3. Debbie Mihal says:June 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I love this! Thank you for the post, Priscilla.

    As I viciously attacked weeds the other day (I do this with a sense of guilt–who am I to determine what lives or dies?), I paused to admire a pretty flower that was wonderfully delicate. It was only half open, and I loved the way the petals folded in on themselves. Then I realized–it was bindweed. There was a lot of it, growing over an old tree stump, covering the brown-grey rot with lush green and extending into the surrounding iris and grass. I was sad to pull it. I had figured the bindweed in my yard got out of control because I wasn’t around to weed it last year at this time and it probably seeded like crazy. That one flower gave me such happiness, though. It felt cruel to pull it.

    I didn’t know it is a native plant. It was mentioned in a book about occupied France, and so I thought it was an invasive from Europe.

    Dandelion root is a cleanser–of the liver or kidneys, I can’t remember which. Years ago I decided to interpret the abundance of dandelions in my yard as nature’s way of telling me I need to balance and cleanse my system. Last year, I wasn’t around to pull bindweed because I was with my mother, who was dying of cancer. Now I find it might be helpful for tumors. Maybe there’s some message for me in that.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:June 19, 2010 at 10:45 pm

      I love morning glories, which means I love the bindweed flower too. Even as I pull it, I enjoy it. What a tenacious plant! You gotta admire that if nothing else. . . . I believe dandelion is a liver cleanser. Thanks for expressing the ambivalence so well–viciously attacking weeds, feeling guilty while doing it. Been there!

  4. Beth Partin says:June 21, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I never knew bindweed was native–I thought it was an Asian plant. And I just spent an hour this morning un-twining it from flowers in a particularly weedy part of my yard.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:June 21, 2010 at 12:48 pm

      Bindweed apparently is native to many parts of the world–Wikipedia says it has “cosmopolitan distribution.” Even native plants can get out of balance under certain conditions.

  5. larry nygaard says:June 24, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Well, God bless Wikipedia: while Hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium (synonym Convulvulus sepium), is indeed native to the eastern United States, the Field bindweed, Convulvulus arvensis, which is the rampant Colorado species to which you refer, was introduced from its native Europe (See “Weeds of the West,” Tom D. Whitson, Editor.).

    I am no expert on the medicinal uses of bindweed, but it is likely the former that was used by Native Americans, and the juice of that plant is reputed to be poisonous (“The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers,” Timothy Coffey, Author), so be careful with it.

    This does not, of course, negate your point about bindweed’s ecological function as a pioneer plant that helps to hold disturbed soil. And it is a pretty plant, when in flower, as are many of the more noxious weeds, e.g. Purple loosestrife, Myrtle spurge and Mediterranean sage, which can out-compete our native plant species and severely degrade habitat for wildlife. If I want my garden to look like a neglected field or a roadside ditch, I will let the bindweed go nuts; native plants will eventually recolonize that patch of laissez faire landscaping in a hundred years or so anyway. However, I prefer to devote my gardens to mostly native plants in a manner which simulates a more mature local ecosystem, so I get out there to dig, pull and manage the populations of bindweed and several other species that are non-native or inimical to my aims.

    No, weeds are not a simple matter.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:June 24, 2010 at 8:46 am

      Larry, how right you are—our favorite villain, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), is not native to North America. Wikipedia says it was native to Europe and Asia. So my starting premise was incorrect! However, you and I both are making another mistaken assumption—that the bindweed used by Native Americans was the native bindweed. In fact, the ethnobotanical literature listed in the More Info section above all refers to Convolvulus arvensis, as does the unpublished study of bindweed root tincture used for reducing tumors. (And yes, the tincture is toxic if not prepared in the right way. Be careful, everybody.) It is easy to assume that if indigenous people use a plant, the plant must be indigenous also. In fact, the Indians have adapted to use what is available—in this case, the invasive, nonnative bindweed. I hope that medical research continues in the same vein! Thanks for contributing your insights and also the great resources you mention.

  6. Beth Partin says:June 24, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Hello, Larry! Haven’t been on a WRV project with you in a year or two. I am also trying to simulate a native ecosystem, though I don’t think I’ll ever make my little patch of buffalograss a sustainable system. And I just spent the morning pulling bindweed–can’t keep up with the stuff.

  7. larry nygaard says:June 26, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Hey Beth!

    Note that I said “simulate.” The only things my patch is really sustaining are its demands on my time and the neighborhood deer population. Don’t get to look at the yucca blooms very long–if at all–before they are eaten, but I do get to watch fawns grow up to return as yearlings and moms. They’re good fertilizer applicators too.

  8. Claire Wallter says:July 1, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Never thought I’d read an ode to bindwind. Thanks for the enlightening post.

  9. Hystery says:July 1, 2010 at 9:59 am

    I’ve been thinking of this post. As we traveled yesterday, I saw some bindweed by the side of the Thruway. I didn’t know what it was called until I saw your post. In my whole life, I’ve seen very little of it and always thought it such a lucky thing that such a pretty wildflower would grow where I found it. I did not know people try to get rid of it! Perhaps our soil or growing conditions are not good for it.

  10. Jerrie Hurd says:July 4, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Now I have a name for my nemesis. Also reason to wonder about its nemesis status. Thanks for info.

  11. Tamara Suttle says:July 15, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Priscilla! You’re killing me here! I call it “the Devil Weed” and, of course, our lot was bare when we moved in here in Castle Rock so it really loves our little abused ground.

    Thanks so much for such fabulous research on Bindweed and for your not-so-gentle reminder of the many ways it works for us rather than against us. I will be happy to pass the link along!

    Tamara G. Suttle

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:July 15, 2010 at 9:24 pm

      Yeah, but it’s not native! So my premise was wrong. Still, it’s interesting to consider the ways that even a pesky non-native can contribute.

  12. Gail Storey says:August 5, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    What a fascinating post with a balanced, affirmative view! I got a huge kick out of the one big plant theory, and the comments are wonderful too.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:August 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm

      We all had fun with this one, didn’t we? More fun than pulling bindweed. 🙂

  13. Debbie Mihal says:August 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Over the last few weeks, thanks to Gail, I found a way to make pulling bindweed fun. While hooping in my yard, I get a chance to both, enjoy it and notice where it’s growing. When the hoop falls, I go and pick bindweed, which gives me a much needed break before trying another move with the hoop. Not only do I get exercise, I feel productive, too. And, I get to honor the plant before sending it on its journey to the compost bin.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:August 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm

      Debbie, I love your approach! Gail is getting to us all with the hoop dancing! 🙂 Whatever makes pulling bindweed fun!