Sandy’s Garden ... Hedge Bindweed

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I was driving through a village in north-east Fife a few weeks ago.

Or, more accurately, I was being driven through a village in north-east Fife when I caught sight of some attractive white, trumpet-shaped flowers sprawling through a hedge at a point where there are houses on one side of the road and agricultural land on the other, this agricultural land being, apparently, currently ‘set-aside’, which is the short-hand name for ‘the policy of taking land out of production to reduce crop surpluses.’ Unexpectedly, in my view, the flowers were a feature of the hedge which separated the agricultural land from the road, rather than being grown by the, for reasons which I shall explain, misguided householders. So far, so unexceptional.

But on my return home, I had recourse to my trusty and well-thumbed copy of the Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe in the pages of which I identified my flowers and being those of the hedge bindweed plant, Calystegia sepium to quote its proper botanical name. Now something niggled at my brain, insisting that, while hedge bindweed is native to the whole of north-western Europe, it is less common in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom; and this thought took me to the website of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, where I learned that hedge bindweed had not been recorded in the parish where I saw it prior to 1930, and had only been recorded at a single site there between 1930 and 1986. Between 1987 and 2009 it was recorded at five sites; and since 2010 it has been recorded at eleven sites. This would accord with one of hedge bindweed’s less attractive characteristic, which is that it is difficult to eradicate by cultural methods as the roots can extend deep into the soil. “These roots are not easy to remove as they persist from a perennial root system,” I learn from a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) website. “They are usually white and brittle and, if broken, are able to regenerate from the smallest sections.”

Fair enough: but how does hedge bindweed spread from one distinct location to another? Here is the answer from the website of Garden Organic: “Hedge bindweed flowers from June to October. The flowers are insect pollinated, self-incompatible and produce few seeds. Seed is set from September to October. The seed is contained in a dehiscent 4-seeded capsule.” And, although the plant is very conservative in the matter of seed production, these can reportedly remain viable in the soil for many years. So, once ingested by a bird, the seed can be carried anywhere within the bird’s territory and, after having passed through the bird’s digestive system and been returned to the ground, years may pass before any growth appears. It is also possible for the plant to be spread by enthusiastic gardeners in search of something exotic, for it is possible to buy seed; and once established, hedge bindweed is the very devil to eradicate and is very willing to spread, choking plants in borders and twining around any plant shoot or cane. Persistent and thorough digging can remove the roots of a small colony of hedge bindweed: but its preferred habitat … hedges, would you believe? … makes that course of action very difficult; and similarly, the inter-twining of the weed with its reluctant host renders spraying with powerful weed-killers well-nigh impossible, although the patient gardener can untwine the stems and lay them on bare ground before spraying the foliage.

Sometimes called morning glory, hedge bindweed is said, by persons with an interest in witchcraft, to belong to Saturn, their patron; and the stems can apparently be put to work in binding spells for people, objects, or spirits. But most folk will be content to admire the pretty flowers and hope that they always have to travel a distance to see them.