Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)


Some studies of the beautifully varied flowers of Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis, Sw: Åkervinda), the small scrambling bindweed of verges and of fields bleached by herbicide.

Very common in most of the British Isles, but less so in moors and mountains (e.g. most of Scotland).

Worldwide distribution: a broad sweep across Europe and much of temperate Asia, now also well established across North America.

Common in the southern half of Sweden, occasional in the north.


There is little I can do
besides stoop to pluck them
one by one from the ground,
their roots all weak links,
this hoard of Lazaruses popping up
at night, not the Heavenly Blue
so like silk handkerchiefs,
nor the Giant White so timid
in the face of the moon,
but poor relations who visit
then stay. They sleep in my garden.
Each morning I evict them.
Each night more arrive, their leaves
small, green shrouds,
reminding me the mother root
waits deep underground
and I dig but will never find her
and her children will inherit
all that I’ve cleared
when she holds me tighter
and tighter in her arms.

(Poem by James McKean. Poem source.)

Like some other bindweed poems, this one is fascinated by the plant's famously deep roots, by this image of the ineradicable. 

"in the face of the moon". Species such as Hedge Bindweed (Calystegia sepium) keep their flowers open all through a moonlit night. 

I never quite like the comparison of living plants to fabrics ("handkerchiefs", "shrouds"). I can't ignore my feeling of how different they are; how fabric, like most other human artefacts, is essentially arid, while plant tissue is essentially water-based. 

The more natural comparison, in that respect, is to the animal body. But this leads to other difficulties. For instance, bindweed is often said to "choke" other plants. But that's a bit misleading; plants don't have lungs or throats or windpipes.

The aggressive connotation seems a bit awry, too. It competes, of course. But more often than not, Convolvulus arvensis is found intergrowing with other plant species in a community: other plants of high summer, or the relics of spring plants that do all their work before the bindweed begins to show. When you see it unaccompanied by other species, it's usually on ground that other plants can't cope with, such as gravel or sand.

The lateral scrambling has a different function than stifling other vegetation. Field Bindweed is emphatically a full-sun plant. The scrambling gives it the option, denied to most other plants, of shifting its position a long way sideways from the spot where it happens to germinate, and thus to find its place in the sun.

Still, there's something animal about the scrambling habit of Field Bindweed; perhaps its reach, the sense of horizontal travel. So maybe it feels right when, in Alice Oswald's poem "Body", a badger, clinging to life,

                      with that 
bindweed will of his 
went on running along the hedge and 
into the earth again

In winter,

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres

(Thomas Hardy, "The Darkling Thrush")

This refers to one of the climbing bindweeds such as Hedge Bindweed, but I thought it was worth quoting, for its rendering of how flailing bindweed stems wrap round each other after outgrowing other vegetation. 

This will be Hedge Bindweed, too: 
The cumbrous bind-weed, with its wreaths and bells,
Had twined about her two small rows of peas,
And dragged them to the earth.

(William Wordsworth, "The Ruined Cottage")

Bindweed climbs up a stem (or trellis or wire fence) by spiralling up-and-to-the-right, the same way as runner beans do. Some other climbing species, such as honeysuckle, spiral up-and-to-the-left.  

(Spiralling to the right is often described as "anti-clockwise", but that depends on assuming that your imaginary clock is facing upwards. Seen from beneath, spiralling to the right is "clockwise".)

On a straight stem:                 

aaa             aaa                             
bbb aa bbbbbb aa bbb            
            aaa           aaa              

Twining round itself:

aaa   bbb   aaa   bbb   aaa  bbb
        aa     bb     aa     bb     aa
bbb     aaa   bbb   aaa   bbb   aaa


On a straight stem:                

            aaa          aaa              
bbb aa bbbbbb aa bbb           
aaa             aaa                       

Twining round itself:

bbb     aaa   bbb   aaa   bbb  aaa
        aa     bb    aa     bb     aa
aaa   bbb   aaa   bbb    aaa   bbb

In the case of Field Bindweed, the stems generally grow laterally, not vertically. If you can only see a section you might not know in which direction it's growing: the twining is to the right, either way.  

Relevantly or not, the corollas fold to the right and twist to the left... 

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