Ipomoea lacunosa, also known as whitestar morning glory, pitted morning glory or whitestar potato. Yes, potato. For those of you who are unaware, the morning glory and the sweet potato are from the same botanical genus: Ipomoea. Sweet potatoes are Ipomoea batatas, while other varieties of morning glories have species designations of nil (Japanese morning glory), alba (moonflower), aquatica (water spinach), or purpurea (Grandpa Ott's purple morning glory.) There are over 500 species of Ipomoea growing on every continent except Antartica. The little, insignificant morning glory called the whitestar is just one of many in a huge family.
Whitestar morning glory is the weedy cousin of our cultivated plants.
This tiny little flower on the small, creeping vine is native to North America east of the Rockies and even up into Ontario, Canada. It has been introduced into Europe and parts of Asia as well. It is an annual plant that blooms, sets seed and dies all in one season, however the small, oval seeds are capable of remaining dormant for years before germinating. The little whitestar morning glory favors disturbed ground, abandoned lots, roadsides and untended flowerbeds...ask me how I know. They sprout in my flowerbeds and in my pea gravel mulch every summer and despite my efforts to pull them before they set seed, they are a permanent fixture at my house. They may be cute with their tiny white flowers, however they seem to have developed the annoying habit of sprouting where they don't belong.
Wildlife like the whitestar
This is a plant for the wild things. Quail and pheasant love the seed. It is a host plant for several moths. Butterflies and bees like the nectar and pollen. It isn't browsed by deer or rabbits though. The leaves and stems have an unpleasant taste, so they tend to avoid it for more palatable cuisine. It is tenacious and makes for a pretty little vine if you are so inclined, however, let the seeds mature and you'll have them sprouting every year for eternity. They grow best in sunny conditions and like well-drained soil with plenty of moisture, however, they are capable of surviving quite well in abandoned gravel lots, the edges of driveways and unmowed grass. The flowers bloom in the mornings from about mid-July until cut down by frost in late October and the vines can stretch nearly eight feet when in favorable conditions. I find them creeping up and around my azaleas and have to search for where the vine sprouted to make sure I've gotten the whole thing, just breaking the stems seems to encourage it to grow more.
Ancient uses for the whitestar morning glory
The ancients knew this plant and along with its relatives, used the tuberous root as a starchy food. While the little whitestar doesn't produce large roots like its cousin the sweet potato, they are still substantial enough to be edible. They also used the crushed seeds in a tea for laxative purposes (yes, another ancient laxative!)however, due to the extreme toxicity, don't try this at home. The Aztecs also used the morning glory sap as an ingredient to help convert the latex from the Castilla elastica (the rubber tree) into a crude rubber, long before Mr. Goodyear's ancestors set foot on the continent. Medicinally, the roots were dried and ground into a powder and the tea steeped from it was an expectorant to help ease coughs. The leaves were also used as tea to treat digestive issues and headaches. The seeds are powerfully poison and ingesting them often results in hallucinations and possibly seizures. A type of wine was made from fermenting the flowers. The colorless flowers of the whitestar do not produce a natural dye, however its blue or purple cousins are sometimes used to produce pale blue, pink or green colors when different mordants are used.
Respect the past, but live in the present
In this day and age, we see any unwanted plant as a weed. We fail to understand that our ancestors had to utilize whatever they had at hand to help them survive. Most often the plants that grew in their neighborhoods and communities played a significant part in their daily lives. They were food, medicine or dyes to brighten their lives and while we know many of these plants and their uses, chances are, a great number have been lost to history. Today, I pull many weeds from my garden that were useful to my ancestors. I appreciate their struggle to make a more comfortable life and even though I have no use for the plants they deemed important, I do pause at the compost heap and silently thank them for the knowledge. If an unfortunate disaster happens, hopefully, I can use the knowledge of these plants to possibly make my life and my neighbors' lives better for the duration of the disaster. Old knowledge may not be the best way to treat injuries and illness or to find food, however it does not hurt to be prepared in the eventuality that the skills are needed.