Not Your Grandma’s Morning Glory

Plants can surprise you in an infinite number of ways but nothing is more startling than to find that a nondescript or common little thing that you may remember from your grandmother’s garden has undergone a renaissance. And as you are coming to terms with the exotic forms and colors of your erstwhile humble cottage garden plant you find that it has a fascinating history as well.  Prepare to be astonished by the common morning glory.

Morning glory is a loose term that is applied to thousands of types of plants mostly in the family Convolvulaceae.  The bindweeds, commonly referred to as wild morning glories, are of the genus Convolvulus of this family. They are the pretty pick and white pestilence that is nearly impossible to rid yourself of once they have taken up residence in your garden. Each little piece of root will turn into a new plant and the seeds are reported to survive for 50 years in the soil.

Grandma’s morning glories, the small pink and purple flowering vines, are Ipomoea purpurea.  They are the morning blooming vines, which close their flowers as the sun reaches its zenith. Included among the dawn bloomers with I. purpurea are Impomoea tricolor and Impomoea nil. They are native to Mexico and Central America and other semi-tropical regions. They probably reached Europe in the early 18th century.  While they can be as troublesome as bindweed, reseeding with wild abandon, they are not often a problem in our area because of our short growing season. Seeds started outside in the late spring will frequently not come into bloom before our first frost. For this reason they are commonly started indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. Peat pots are advisable, as they don’t transplant well. Soaking and nicking the seeds promote germination. They not only have a water impervious coat but substances that inhibit germination are present in the seed.

There are a large number of cultivars of Ipomoea. ‘Heavenly Blue’ (Impmoea tricolor) with its 2 ½ inch sky blue flowers is one of the best known. Another tri-color, ‘Pearly Gates’ is a white that came onto the morning glory scene in 1942. ‘Kniolas Black Knight’ (I. purpurea) is a purple/ black flower with a cerise center. ‘Grandpa Ott’ (I. purpurea) is an heirloom variety with a red star on a purple background. It is one of the tallest, climbing rapidly to 15 feet.  ‘President Tyler’, another heirloom purperea, flowers in just 45 days and is easier to flower in our climate. It is a purple flower with a maroon star and white throat.  ‘Carnavale di Venezia is a cultivar that produces blue and pink flowers with intricate striping and patterning.

‘Scarlet O’Hara’(Ipomoea nil) was the winner of the All American Selection Award in 1939.  It is a true scarlet.  ‘Early Call’ also a Japanese morning glory is purple with a red star. ‘Rose Silk’ is a mauve/rose with a pink star and white picotee edge. ‘Chocolate’ is rose with a hint of brown. Both have variegated leaves and if the truth were told probably originated in Japan, as some of the seeds are making their way into the US. I recently found locally a package of ‘Picotee Blue’ which is a blue double with a white edging.

The truly exotic colors and patterns, double flowers, variegated leaves and odd flower forms are found among the Japanese morning glories (Ipomoea nil) or the imperial morning glory hybridized in Japan. The morning glory, known as asagao, was introduced into Japan in the 9th century. It is believed to have reached Japanese horticulturists by way of southern China.  During the Edo Period (1608-1868), without the benefit of Mendelian genetics, Japanese breeders produced thousands of unique morning glories. Many of these strains still exist collected and maintained by the Japanese Museum of Natural History and individual breeding programs. Modern horticulturists in Japan continue to focus on the breeding of new morning glories. In 2005 a morning glory without petals was developed.

The Japanese often grow these exotic beauties in pots. The Asagao Homepage maintained by Mr. Eiji  Nitasaka, a professor of Kyushu University in Japan is worth viewing. He illustrates this unique cultivation technique and has pictures of what he calls mutant morning glories. “Mutant morning glories” are his research field.

Most of the Japanese morning glories are not available to Western gardeners. The more unusual the coloring or configuration the less likely it is to be found in garden catalogues. One of the shredded petal morning glories in a blue can be found at Summer Hill Seeds, online at It is known as a Murasakihigezaki morning glory. They also have a shredded petal fuchsia, Akahigezaki Hige. In addition there are several colors of ‘Tie-die’ and a ‘Chocolate’. Much to my surprise a recent trip to Kohlepp’s resulted in the discovery of a number of the more exotic morning glories including ‘Chocolate’  and ‘Picotee Red’.

Ipomoea alba or moonflower is often called a morning glory, although it blooms in the evening. It is a rapidly growing vine which produced 6 inch white flowers with a light scent. They are ideal for the night garden where they are pollinated by the nighthawk moth. For the lovers of the unusual there is a purple moonflower (I. turbinata) with smaller flowers and no scent.

Many morning glories are perennial vines (zone 7) that are not hardy in our area so, as with many tender perennials, they are treated as annuals. They are not fussy about soil but do require full sun, although I. tri-color is reported to flower with some shade. Excess fertilizer will result in vegetative growth rather than flowers. They also like heat so if you live in a cold pocket in zone 5 you might have some trouble with them. With the newer forms that are reaching the market they might well be worth some extra care. These are not your grandma’s morning glories.