Morning glories always remind me that every night will bring a new tomorrow. Sometimes people consider them invasive weeds and a nuisance that disturbs their well organized and often persnickety preconceptions of what a garden should look like. I love the invasive nature of these most glorious plants not just because they quite frankly., “grow where ever they want to grow!” but because they are pugilistic plants in often hostile growing environments. What I mean with that statement is not an endorsement of the ancient sport of boxing, rather it is an adulation of morning glories with their fighting desire to live, despite their often unfriendly growing environments.
Growing up in the city of Philadelphia, the Gray’s Ferry section, I was always fascinated with the great morning glories that continued to grow up and over the concrete block fence at Mrs. McCullough’s house on Newkirk Street. We lived on 28th Street, and every morning in the Spring when I looked out the window, there they were, back to back with our concrete fence, Mrs. McCullough’s Morning Glories growing in victorious splendor despite the concrete, asphalt, local oil refineries, chemical plants and other indicators of the Industrial Age. To the best of my knowledge, Mrs. McCullough never watered them, took care of them or for all I know ever took an extended look at the cascading vine, always filled with deep purple flowers that spread into the neighbors yard and tumbled into the alley that separated our yards. Morning Glories are determined plants despite the odds that they should never survive in the concrete world of the city. However, they indeed have the last laugh!
Gray’s Ferry was a neighborhood that grew as a result of the Industrial Revolution. According to the historical recollections of the 18th century, the area was rural, with great trees and meadows. The famous botanist John Bartram (and his sons) created the first botanical garden in the United States on the western side of the Schuylkill River. Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson and Franklin frequented visits to Bartram’s Farm in the colonial era, and purchased seeds for their own plantations to plant during the growing season. With the rise of industrialism, Gray’s Ferry and Bartram’s Gardens was surrounded by urban growth and development and nature took a back seat as the city became more populated.
Despite industrialization many residents attempted to maintain some color in their paved backyards, with concrete blocks often used as fencing materials. Raised beds were often constructed to raise a few plants like tomatoes and carrots and sometimes cabbage. Homes of Italian ancestry sometimes had magnificent fig trees growing in the back year, often side by side with some grape vines from which wine was often made. Of course the potted geraniums were part of the community, simply because they grew easily, offered some color to the gray world of city living and just looked darned nice. My paternal great-grandmother Mary Bendsen often grew African Violets in the kitchen window and they too offered the opportunity for colors throughout the year.
Walking in a city neighborhood, wild plants grew on abandoned lots, some were saplings of ginko trees, some were just large weeds and others were struggling native plants of the area trying to make a stand, surviving in a world in which they were slowing becoming familiar. All of these plants were delights to see, a sensory carnival that never depraved anyone with morning glories, fig trees, even colorfully flowering weeds that survived in Gray’s Ferry.
In the 1970’s the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority thought it would be a good idea to insert trees into the many neighborhoods in the city that lacked urban greenery. A great idea that honestly should be emulated everywhere. Trees soon were planted on every block and color was infused once again into the former Orwellian Gray that was seemingly common to the Industrial Era. Flora and fauna once again began to establish themselves within city neighborhoods. Around the same time, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society created ,”Green Scene,” a program to utilize vacant lots as a place to grow produce and plants to assist the local community. After 100 years, Gray’s Ferry as well as many other neighborhoods in Philadelphia say limited agriculture as part of the urban landscape.
Morning glories are now more pervasive in the neighborhood where I lived in my youth. There is a planned program of growing veggies for local sales and consumption. Families are planting ornamental roses and other plants to brighten up their homes and yards. With all of this I like to think it is a distant recollection of Mrs. McCullough’s Morning Glories that tenaciously survived through the years offering bursts of color that made people smile when they glimpsed the overflowing plants.
Plants and trees, bushes and shrubs belong in the city, not just because they offer a delightful array of colorful diversions, but because they too are part of our cultural and agricultural heritage.
Plant some Morning Glories…they will bring smiles to you, your family and friends and people that pass by…just for the heck of it.
Please check out my blog: http://hughshorticulturalhobby.blogspot.com There is a great video of Morning Glories in action!