Flaura and fauna: A noxious weed where danger lurks below
Bindweed (Calystegia sepium, Granny-pop-out-of-bed, Devil's guts, Columbine)
“AN exceedingly persistent and noxious weed” is the final judgement on this plant in Flora of the British Isles, the 1591 pages of botanical wisdom. And any gardener would agree.
In late spring, the wiry stems creep from the soil and attach to any plant support, and then quietly, in camouflage, twine counter-clockwise, thickening all the while. You may not notice they are there, as the arrow-shaped leaves do not stand out.
When these intruders are finally seen, one is tempted to rip out the stems in rage that they have already got so far. But danger lurks below. These twining stems arise from a root which sends out a single shoot.
If one stem is pulled out, many more twining shoots appear, as in the Greek legend of the many-headed Hydra.
Under the ground are many white stolons from which the shoots come. They look a little like thin pipe cleaners (ask your grandad) and these can break when you are digging. Each fragment will then root, and start off more gardening problems.
Sometimes the bindweed is so well hidden that the first signs are the bright white bell-shaped (campanulate) flowers which open by day and fold away neatly at night.
Children used to play with them by pinching the flowers and squeezing them at the base, thereby propelling the white flower, which would sail gently earthwards, like a ballooning nightie – hence the nickname Granny-pop-out-of-bed.
The seeds are borne in a capsule and are dark brown and wrinkled.
Bindweed is a common blight all over the UK, but does serve to brighten up waste ground, hedgerows (the name sepium is Latin and refers to hedges) and abandoned buildings with its attractive flashes of white.
An interesting relative is the parasitic plant dodder, a paler-stemmed version of bindweed, which also climbs, but has developed a way of penetrating its host and drawing out the nutrients it needs.
There are many bindweeds globally, and the herbalist John Gerard writes of the virtues of a species from Peru called Sarsa parilla.
But Culpeper claims that the seed of the bindweed that we know is also useful. Taken in wine with a little saffron, he claims that it opens “obstructions of the liver” and is good for the yellow jaundice “if the party after the taking thereof be laid to sweat well in his bed” – which might, of course, be another possible origin for the name Granny-pop-out-of-bed.
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist from Barnard Castle