Mystery Plant 690: Cypress Vine, Red Morning-Glory

  • Wednesday, September 28, 2022
  • John Nelson
photo by Linda Lee

Allow me to tell you a few things about some members of the Morning-glory family. There must be nearly 2,000 species in this family, and as native plants, they are distributed pretty much all over the world, in temperate and tropical regions. Many of these species are viny, either climbing or crawling (sometimes both): the scientific name for this family is “Convolvulaceae”, which comes from Latin meaning “to twine”, or “bind”. There are a lot of weeds in this family, and of course you all know about our beautiful garden morning-glories. You should know, too, that our beloved sweet potato  (Ipomoea batatas) is a member of the morning-glory family.

There are actually two species dealt with as our Mystery “Plant”. Both have bright red flowers (corollas, that is, with are tubular, and flared out at the end).

I’ll go ahead and tell you that the first plant is called “Cypress vine”, because each of its leaves is finely divided along both sides into many thread-like segments, the leaf thus resembling that of a cypress tree. This is an annual vine, native to Central and South America, as best we know, and which is now grown widely around the world for its breathtakingly red flowers, which are very popular with butterflies and hummingbirds. It turns out that this was one of the first American (that is, New World) species taken back to Europe, in the 1500’s. Although you might think that such a plant would have been grown in Europe for its fabulous flowers, it was actually more desired as a medicinal plant.

The second mysterious plant is usually just called “Red morning-glory”…  although to me, the corollas seem always to be a sort of blend of orange and red.  Like cypress-vine, this is also native to Central and South America, and has been transplanted widely around the world as an ornamental garden plant. Although the flowers are similar, red morning-glory has heart-shaped leaves (sometimes a bit lobed), not divided into lots of segments.

Both of these species are rather commonly seen growing in the autumn in the Southeastern states, usually twining in abundance at the edge of a field or ditch, or perhaps piled up on other vegetation along a railroad. The point is that these introduced species are rather weedy, and in a number of cases, they can be annoyingly invasive.

(It turns out that there is a hybrid of the two named “Cardinal Climber,” which has a scarlet flower, and whose leaves are sort of half-way in morphology between its two parents. This hybrid is also quite impressive twining its way up a trellis, and for that reason is available on the market. Grow it with caution!)

In writing this little article, I have borrowed some information from Dr. Daniel F. Austin (1943-2105), a first-rate American botanist and author of hundreds of publications, and an expert on the morning-glory family. Dr. Austin is known for his academic posts at Florida Atlantic University, and later during his retirement at the University of Arizona. 

[Answer: "Cypress-vine," Ipomoea quamoclit, and “Red morning-glory, Ipoomoea coccinea]

* * *

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia SC. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

photo by Linda Lee
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