July 17, 2008
The morning glory is a seductive plant, with heart-shaped leaves and blooms of purple trumpets, the very symbol of love and passion. But it is a possessive lover, and in its ruthless drive for dominance it will strangle every competitor.
Before taking a planting bed at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, I’d had a long and abstract affection for morning glories. They’d always seemed so charming, so well-behaved, delicately climbing up neighbors’ trellises. All that has changed for me now: They are the weed above every other weed. Like lovable stray kittens that turn into ornery cats, they come up coyly in the spring along with the beans and the beets and the peppers you’ve planted, looking to the naïve like new-found friends.
"What are these?" I ironically test novice gardeners in the spring, pointing to the tiny hearts already sprouting in the untilled soil. "Some kind of flower?" they always respond. "They do have lovely blossoms," I tell them, "but they are the devil disguised. You must pull them out as soon as you see them or your plot will become a morning-glory patch in a matter of weeks."
They never listen. They may root out crabgrass and dandelions, but they’ll spare the morning glory. Soon they are in despair; it is taking over everything, twining around the tomatoes, creeping up the corn, choking the okra. To restore order, they must carefully pull the glories up by the roots, a task not only tedious but enfuriating: The more of them you kill, the more appear, wave after wave of attacking troops.
Genesis Park was carved out of a vacant lot 25 years ago by the Franciscan Brothers who had a monastery across the street. Legend has it that some visiting Brother, caring for the garden when the regulars were away, thought the bare fences needed adornment, bought a packet of morning glory seeds, and sowed them along the borders. Amazingly to me, this species, Ipomoea purpurea, designated a "noxious weed" by federal and state agricultural departments, is actually sold for real money in garden shops. You’d think the packets, if not banned entirely, would at least carry a warning, like cigarette packs do. This poor guy, like so many others, never knew.
The Brother went his way, but his work remained. Casting their seeds year by year, the demons spread from fence to plot to path, and even sprang up among the boulders of the rock garden. They have also become grotesque, their stems now thick and tough as baling wire, with leaves bigger than your hand. They grow so fast that without persistent pulling, the entire garden would be submerged beneath a weedy sea in a single summer. Even with persistent pulling, it is only possible to inhibit, never to eradicate.
In its June 29 issue, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by Tom Christopher about the research of Lewis Ziska, a "weed ecologist" at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the effects of increased temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on plant life. In 2002, Ziska dug up soil from an organic farm in rural Maryland and poured it into three large beds, one at the farm, one in suburban Baltimore, and one in the city itself. The inner-city site, retaining heat from the surrounding pavements and CO2 from auto emissions, matched the average temperature and carbon dioxide levels projected for the planet in 30 to 50 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Over five seasons, the weeds that sprang up in that plot grew two to four times the size of those at the farm, produced more pollen, and replicated far faster.
Uh-oh, I thought as I read: In the South Bronx, the future is now.
Weeds are weeds because of their genetic resourcefulness. As the earth warms and fills with growth-stimulating carbon dioxide, they will become an ever-greater menace to food crops. Along with their warnings of a weed-bound world, Ziska and his colleagues have proposed some creative solutions, including crossing wild, weedy grains with their cultivated cousins for a hardy, edible hybrid, and using starchy invasives like kudzu, presently devouring the South and moving northward, for biofuels.
That’s a weed ecologist for you, always on the sunny side.
My old friend Norman Bantz, the Yonkers beekeeper, read Christopher’s article and also found a silver lining. "That’s actually good news for bees," he ventured. "The more pollen in the flowers, the less the bees have to work to get it, and that means stronger, healthier hives. What are weeds to bees? Just another flower." Of course, more pollen may be bad news for allergy sufferers, though many people I know are turning to local honey, made from the same plants that afflict them so badly, as an antidote.
The day is hot, and passing cars and trucks are ladling their emissions over Genesis Park; it’s time to go on morning glory patrol. As I reach for the root of this noxious weed, I keep thinking there’s a gothic parable growing right there before my eyes, a tale of hearts and flowers and strangling love.