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What morning glories are hiding, circumnutation, seeking
A couple years ago, I planted a couple morning glories. They are a forgettable plant for most people, I have gathered. They are even considered a weed in some parts, but we’d just moved in, and our yard was more plat map than garden. I wanted immediate growth. Ipomea purpurea did not disappoint.
One morning glory scaled the bamboo stake I’d given it and jumped onto the metal railing of our back stairs. The other along our fence began blooming at a terrific pace—three, four, five flowers a day. And these were not your average blues or purples, but remarkably complex configurations of pigment. Strips and dabs and dashes of color. A code, it seemed to me.
Morning glories have five petals that fuse together into a single flower with sections separated by ridges. With my morning glories, a sheet of purple might fill two or three sections, while the rest got the dot-dash treatment. Or perhaps nearly all the flower would be purple, save one outlier section. Anything could happen.
Look it up and you’ll see the rest of the world sees no mystery here. It might be explained that I’d purchased a varietal of morning glory called Harlequin, which just does this. The online garden stores treat the varietal as “delightful,” but go no further. Perhaps there is a specialized agronomic literature that describes how they were bred and why. I have not found it. How did these plants develop such a remarkable capacity for infinite, intricate variation? What could it mean? Why isn’t anyone who grows this plant screaming LOOK AT THIS?!!!!
Thanks for reading Oakland Garden Club! Join us to scream LOOK AT THIS BEAUTIFUL THING.
I do have reason to suspect morning glories are up to something. For many years, I have noticed a strange general property of the flower. Look at the center. Point your fancy camera at the center, even. It will remain curiously … indistinct. There is something strange about the way light travels down and through the throat of this flower. It’s as if the photons are captured and released back into the world dazed and a little confused about where they were supposed to be reflecting. In the right conditions, they can even seem to be a source of light. Something borderline astronomical. It is magic, I am saying. They are hiding something, I am saying.
Each flower exists for one day before the blossom puckers itself into a tidy little packet and begins to make a seed.
As I checked the blossoms each day (what mayhap will the runes say this fair morn), I wondered if they were growing fast enough for me to see it with my own eyes. How long would I have to stare at these plants before I could make out a detectable shift in their position? Mmm too long, I decided. Instead, I purchased a small action camera, a cheap GoPro knock-off, and I set it up to catch the morning glory in action. I love the frame of this shot, which I couldn’t preview. Basement, Home Depot bucket, majesty.
There is so much to see. Of course, there is the drama of the morning glory blossom coming to fullness and then tightening, tightening, tightening.
Not to be too hortisexual here, but there is the caress (?) of one vine along the vertical rail, the way it presses against the metal, levering into space and sliding delicately upward. Failing to find a place to curl, it settles back amongst the other vines.
You can watch time in this video—the bright light of morning, the traveling shadows of the big apple tree against the house, the cool evenness of the approaching evening.
And finally, there is the satisfaction of the diagonal rail: the rotating quest of the vine to find its next place to hang on. I feel like cry-cheering at the moment (0:15) when the tip dives into place and snugs into the rail. Yes! That was what it had been searching for. Yes. Yes.
I did not know what this form of seeking was called when I made the video. It would be another year before the artist James Bridle’s latest book was published in the United States, which gave me the gift of the word for this growth: circumnutate.
In his own context, Bridle describes what we’ve just seen in the morning glory’s movement:
To ‘circumnutate’ means to bend or move around in an irregular circle or ellipse. It is a motion caused by variations in the speed of growth of different parts of the plant, and is the mechanism behind most plant movement… It’s nutation that causes leaves to bend or flatten out, and petals to furrow and curl. Circumnutation - a gentle and upward and outward spiraling - is the characteristic movement of growing plants, performed by everything from pea shoots to oak seedlings, as well as mushrooms and the hyphae of fungi. Being the first gesture of awaking, questing life, it seems to presage all other movements, including our own. It is a nodding turn, a greeting to the environment, an opening ceremony or a blessing to the four directions: Hello, world…
Life follows the greeting. While many other kinds of vegetal movements have since been discovered, nutation remains central to a true understanding of plant life: a mode of expansion which is not reactive, muscular, and domineering, but gentle, expansive and generative. It is through their own attentiveness to their environment that plants have obtained the world.
Ugh, so good, right? How can we not see ourselves in this, too? We, too, have parts growing at different speeds. This forces us, too, to search unknown space, seeking the railing that will hold us. Maybe, too, we might just dance into the space where we think we belong, around and up, until — no, it doesn't quite work. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, we will reach again.
A gentle and upward and outward spiraling.
When we harvested, we crushed the papery pods so that the seeds dropped easily into our hands. The seeds themselves were beautiful, too. Near-black, almost velvety. They so thoroughly absorbed light that I found it hard to focus my eyes on them. I found it hard to believe each one was a three-dimensional object, a life, and not some accidental hole in the table or my hand or the world. Is this where the light shining down the throat of the flower had gone? Into this beautiful blackness. It makes sense.
Bridle’s book basically has three titles in the U.S., all good:
Ways of Being
Animals, Plants, Machines:
The Search for a Planetary Intelligence