A couple of springs ago I came across some seeds of the cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), which was described on the packet as a delicate vine with bright red flowers.
That sounded nice enough, but there was more: Thomas Jefferson had sent cypress vine seeds to his daughters.
I am a sucker for this kind of historical claim, so I sowed the seeds at the base of our deck behind some newly planted perennials, envisioning a graceful adornment for the deck's plain wooden railing.
The shoots of the cypress vine emerged like little pairs of wings. They seemed fragile and apt to dry out, so I babied them, bringing them water even while ignoring the struggling perennials.
Within days, their leaves became feathery, and more fragile in appearance than ever. But that airiness belied a will of iron. These plants had places to go, and, as annuals whose life span extends only to fall's first frost, they were in a hurry to get there.
What they didn't have was a sense of direction. Most of the seedlings headed straight under the deck. Now, when a vine twists, the cells on one side of its stem are growing in response to contact. It's an automatic thing, and it's called thigmotropism.
I know this; I looked it up. But still, when I reached under the deck to pull the young vines out toward the light, I couldn't help lecturing them as if they had little green brains in their curly tendrils. "Don't you know what you're doing?"
It turns out the cypress vines did know what they were doing. Like kindergartners spilling onto a playground, or city planners eyeing farmland, these plants were on a takeover mission. First they climbed to the top of the railing, just as I had hoped.
But then ... well, let's just say their rate of expansion far exceeded my expectations. The vines coiled around a watering can. They tied up the inner workings of several canvas deck umbrellas. They squeezed a potted cactus, and they strangled the cleome.
Instead of a daily visit to help those fragile vines along, now I took the opposite approach, yanking off huge clumps just to keep the picnic table clear.
Perhaps these plants weren't so delicate after all.
I read up on cypress vine in a handy book called "Passalong Plants." (That's also where I learned about thigmotropism.) One of the book's authors, Steve Bender, gushes about the plant's flaming blossoms and handsome foliage. Why, he wonders, don't more people grow it?
I know the answer to that one. People know better. Sure, cypress vine is awfully pretty, but it's a pest - I mean, a vine. When you invite a vine into your yard, you have to be ready to welcome its thigmotropism.
If I had any doubts about whether cypress vine was too thigmotropic for me, the case of the dog leash convinced me. One morning after a walk, I tossed the leash in its usual spot over the deck railing. By midafternoon, the cypress vine had twisted around the leash twice and was starting a third rotation.
It makes me wonder. What did Thomas Jefferson's daughters send him in return? Kudzu?