The following articles were first published in The Friendly Post, a local newsletter published in Kodaikanal between 2003 and 2011.
Girija Viraraghavan is admired for her excellent knowledge of ornamental flowers and has taught through many workshops and conferences across the world. She shares a deep love for roses with her husband.
In this educative and inspiring column she discusses in detail the flowers found in the wild and in the gardens of many homes in Kodaikanal. In this series, we will publish a number of her articles, describing a flowering species in each.
When we first came to Kodaikanal in the late 1970’s, we saw a number of blue –purple flowered vines climbing on the trees, all the way up to Perumalmalai, but none further up. We knew these flowers as we had seen many of them on the plains. Evocatively called ‘morning glories’, usually they came in a range of blue colors, though we had grown more exotic ones, in shades of pink, and even some striped ones when we lived in the plains.
For some years we never saw them anywhere in Kodaikanal and then we began to see one or two stray ones in gardens, with purplish flowers, but in this past year, we have seen so many plants, growing in so many gardens and in the wild, that it has brought home to us, once more, and forcefully, that climate change has happened and plants which were earlier uncomfortable at our elevation, are now quite happy and have got acclimatized.
The word ‘ipomoea’ comes from the Greek ‘ips’ meaning ‘bindweed’ and ‘homoios’ meaning ‘like’ in reference to the twining habit of growth of this species, which belongs to the botanical family Convolvulaceae. This is a genus of about 500 species of evergreen and deciduous climbing and twining herbs, including (you won’t believe this) the vegetable, sweet potato, and a few trees and shrubs, mostly from the tropics, Asia, Africa and Australia. It was first introduced to England in the late 16th century. Some are annuals, some perennials.
Ipomoea has many uses beyond garden flowers. Most are either edible or can be used as a treatment for an illness. It was first used by the Native American Indians as a torch. They would start a fire and then light a root on fire and the root would burn for days.
Ipomoea, which is an annual vine, is known by many as a weed because of its ability to reseed itself. This genus contains the fastest growing members of the Morning Glory family. They get the name Morning Glory because every morning they open up, and then every night they close up. This, along with their bright colors, make them a common vine in many western gardens. They can reach heights of over 10 feet. They usually die after the first bad frost.
Most morning glories have a unique ability to open in the daytime and close in the night time. As the temperature rises it increases the water supply to the flower causing it to open. The purpose of this is when they open they allow insects to pollinate the flower. When they close they stop pollination. They also have the ability to change colors to attract insects at different times in the day. For example the flower may be dark in the morning and lighter in the evening. These changes draw insects in so that the plant can be pollinated. The cause of this change is from the sun on the chemicals in the plant, which makes the colors fade. At the end of a day the parts of the flower that can be used by the plant are kept, while the external part of the flower that can not be used is shed. Some ipomoeas are used in medicine, but some others are poisonous.
Our Ipomoea, called I. congesta, has flowers which are funnel -shaped, about 6 cms. across, violet blue when fresh in the morning, getting ‘violeter’ as the day progresses. The broadly ovate leaves are alternate, and triangular, actually three-lobed, in shape. They flower for us throughout the year. No one knows when and who brought it to our hills, but judging from the extensive naturalization it is surmised that plants must have been introduced about a hundred years back. They self seed which means every year a plant dies down but another fresh one takes its place.
There are many new hybrids in the West and in Japan where it is a favourite flower, with even specialist societies for this genus, and exclusive flower shows and competitions being held. With their meticulous and expert growing and display skills, photographs of ipomoeas in a dazzling range of colors and forms, trained to grow on a variety of diminutive and exotic structures, in pots and on the ground, have to be seen and marvelled at.