When Bindweed Strikes
On a mid-summer afternoon, Alice walks through her garden. She stops to admire the beauty. Flowers everywhere, a perfect spectrum of pepper colors, and the squash. It’s huge! She delights in how great the harvest will be this year. Then suddenly, horror strikes!
Alice notices a dainty vine plant, loosely swaying its white and pink flowers in the wind, while it’s dancing arrow-head shaped leaves—–OH NO! *gasp* Could this be Bindweed!?! Alice’s garden invasion is unfortunately not an isolated incident.
Several types of bindweed plague crops, including field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), observed in both narrow and broad leaf varieties, and hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium).
Bindweed is native to Europe and Asia but it can now also be found throughout the United States. It presumably entered North America as a crop seed contaminant during the 1700s.
Description & Damages
Identifiable by its arrowhead-shaped leaves and its pink and white trumpet-shaped flower, bindweed presents a valid reason for concern. The climbing vine with a vast, deep (up to 4 meter depth, and 20 meters laterally) root network will grow to literally strangle any plant that it can. Every year, bindweed causes a significant amount of crop loss throughout the world.
Bindweed can sometimes be confused with Morning Glory, a climbing vine plant with purple trumpet-shaped flowers and heart shaped leaves.
Although Morning Glory is not a high threat to other plants, it can grow and re-seed quickly. Some varieties also have poisonous properties that can affect both pets and humans. If it does not have the arrowhead-shaped leaves, it is most likely not bindweed.
According to a Bindweed Biological Control brochure, issued by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, bindweed caused for up to 60% of crop yield loss and in 2003. This caused losses to exceed $377 million every year.
Considerations for Removal
If you identify bindweed as soon as it starts growing–maybe by it’s crawling vines or first few leaves, removal will be significantly easier than if you notice it when it starts to flower. If you fail to catch this malicious vine until it flowers, by then it will have released its seeds into the air. Once this happens, you can expect its continued proliferation throughout your crops or yard space, and even in pavement cracks, for years to come.
While it may be tempting to let a young plant flourish, especially if their beautiful flowers mesmerize you, if you invest any time, money, or efforts into your lawn, fields, garden beds, or crop space, it is in your best interest to remove every bit of the plant immediately.
Bindweed’s reputable stubbornness is not only limited to its ability to grow in the places where it is most undesirable. It will also re-grow from even the smallest leaf clipping. Therefore, you should dispose of as much of the plant as possible and to collect any loose leaves that may have fallen due to wind, pruning or pulling. For this reason, you should not leave bindweed stem, leaf, flower, or root pieces to die on their own. More importantly, you should never compost bindweed (or else you will unleash their wrath upon all of your plants).
Alternatively, if you are among the few individuals who have no personal investment in your yard or plant space, or if their anti-cancer properties interest you, or you just want to contribute to the Earth’s plant life, you can continue to enjoy the benefit of seeing nice flowers in the early summer months. (Just don’t be surprised when you hear your neighbors complain about their new unfortunate bindweed infestations).
Frequent Pruning – The slow but effective method
Regardless of if your bindweed plant has flowered, if you want to remove it, you should remove as much of it as you can, immediately. It might be nearly impossible to dig up the entire root network in one attempt, so the next best solution is to gently cut the entire plant down to the soil-level. Avoid trying to rip the plant from the ground, as it can cause some plant parts to break off and leaves to fall, which will lead to spreading the bindweed.
While it may seem counterintuitive to leave the root network underground, you should continue to frequently cut the vines all the way to ground level. Although it sounds like they will simply continue to grow, due the the persistence of the root network (and they will!), repeated pruning stresses the roots by requiring the plant to use some of its stored energy for plant growth and repair. If you do this repeatedly enough times, you will have sufficiently used up the bindweed’s root energy stores in order to kill the plant and prevent it from continuing to grow.
Additionally, if you have been careful to pick up every single bit of bindweed plant, this process will help to prevent its spreading while you wait for it to disappear. It is worth repeating that you must never leave even the slightest leaf clipping to dry out or die on its own!!
If you choose to remove your bindweed by following this method, it is important to be both patient and diligent. It may take several months, up to several years, to fully eradicate your bindweed using this method.
Mites – Effective, but Very Slow
The bindweed gall mite (Aceria malherbae) effectively attacks only bindweed and leaves other plants unharmed. The mites stunt plant growth, limits flowering and seed production by feeding on the bindweed leaves. Adult mites are yellowish white and worm-like. They are microscopic in size. If you are lucky enough to live in a state where bindweed gall mites are available, such as Colorado, New Mexico, or Texas, you will be able to find an insectary where you can purchase the mites as infected plant clippings or “gall” (abnormal growth in infested bindweed plants). In order to transport mites to a state where they are not available, you will have to get a permit through the USDA APHIS that complies with your state’s regulations.
Once you have acquired the bindweed gall mite, you should store the mite in a cool, humid place, where the mites can breathe fresh air easily. It is okay to place them in a plastic bag, inside a cooler or refrigerator, but the bag must remain open so that the mites do not suffocate. In order to achieve a high survival rate, it is imperative to release mites during hours of cooler day temperatures. Mites can be released by placing infected bindweed gall, next to the healthy bindweed. The mites will transfer to the new bindweed on their own, so that they can feed from it. Because the mites prefer dry conditions, it is best to refrain from irrigating the affected area.
It will take about one week to observe the effects of the mites on the bindweed. Curled, or shriveled leaves, or leaves and stems that suddenly appear fuzzy, are a good sign that the mites enjoy their feast.
After the appearance of new bindweed gall, it is best to leave the recently infected site resting for several weeks. If the mites consume the bindweed plant to the point of death, they, too, will die of starvation. Therefore, after a few weeks of allowing the mites to rest on the bindweed, it is important to find them a new food source–more bindweed!! Trimming gall and stems from the infected plant, and placing it next to healthy bindweed plants will help to spread the mites and provide them with a new food source. Mowing the infected area can also help to spread the mites. Keep the mites dry (without irrigating).
This method will require a substantial amount of patience and dedication to make sure that your mites do not perish from hunger. It is a very slow process and it is far from being an overnight miracle solution (those miracles do not coexist with bindweed). Bindweed gall mites can eliminate your bindweed, but it will take at least a year of commitment to keeping them alive. The amount of time required to rid your farm of bindweed depends on your access to mites, their health, your ability to keep them alive, and the size of your bindweed-troubled area. For large areas, even if all goes well, vanquishing the bindweed may require several years.
Light Deprivation – Not 100% Effective
Like most other leafy green plants, bindweed loves and needs sunlight in order to thrive. Without sunlight, the plant cannot make its own food and nutrients and will eventually die. Many small-scale gardeners have reported success with covering their bindweed infested garden areas with cardboard and layering it with mulch or manure. While light deprivation kills most weeds, it unfortunately is not foolproof for creeping thistle, docks, or our spotlight strangler–bindweed. Most weeds will die and decay beneath the cardboard, but the length, depth and persistence of bindweed’s root network means that it may find its way around the cardboard before completely exhausting their energy stores.
Inorganic Removal – Herbicides
If you do not grow plants meant for consumption, chemical means can let the bindweed know that it has overstayed its welcome (though it was probably never welcome).
Glyphosate has been used for decades, even on common commercial crops, to remove stubborn weeds (such as bindweed) that threaten crop yield. Glyphosate resistant seeds have been genetically engineered, so farmers can spray their entire fields. In recent years, however, studies have determined that glyphosate is a likely carcinogen, and even small doses can be harmful over a long period of time.
Even if you do not directly grow food, if you are the least bit concerned about where glyphosate ends up after demolishing your bindweed, please refer to the suggestions for organic removal.
Should you decide to proceed with chemical removal, please be sure to follow product directions carefully and to handle the herbicide with caution, always using gloves.
The most popular glyphosate herbicide on the market is Roundup. You can find it in most stores that sell garden or lawn care products. If you use glyphosate products, play close attention to the dilution instructions on the package. Glyphosate solutions become most effective if they are applied in temperatures below 50°F and when the air is humid, to prevent the herbicide from evaporating. Glyphosate will kill, or badly damage, any plants that it come in contact with it–it will kill more than just your weeds. For infestations located close to other plants or trees, it is possible to “paint” bindweed leaves with glyphosate, using something like a cloth or a soft brush. (Make sure to wear non permeable gloves to protect your skin!)
A dilute solution may fail to kill the bindweed. The bindweed will continue to thrive in mockery of your failed attempt. Too strong of a glyphosate solution (insufficiently diluted) will, however, break down plant components too quickly. All though a few leaves, stems and flowers may appear to have died, if the glyphosate fails to reach the depths of the root network, the bindweed will recuperate its health and reflourish.
Some home gardeners have found that mixing their glyphosate solution with dish soap helps to break down leaves’ protective layer so that they can better absorb the chemicals into their roots.
Living in peace with Bindweed
If you really enjoy seeing the bindweed flowers, but you don’t want them to continue strangling your plants, another solution is to give them something else to do. Small wire fences and trellises can help give your friendly bindweed something else to climb (instead of strangle).
DISCLAIMER: Do not attempt a peace offering with your bindweed if you are even the slightest bit financially invested in your crops, plants, flowers, or harvest.
If you choose to follow this method, it is imperative that you keep check on the bindweed vine daily and tuck any loose parts back onto its “ladder.” Make sure that you prune it regularly and disposing of any pieces of bindweed properly so that it does not begin to grow in unwelcoming places.
Be vigilant for the presence of these herbal intruders, especially if you take a long summertime vacation. Even if you manage to eradicate bindweed from your crops, be aware that it can return at any time, especially if bindweed traces tag along on shoes, seed contamination, wind or other weather conditions.
Regardless of what you choose to do about the relentless strangler, we wish you the best of luck with your mission. Have you personally been affected by bindweed? Which methods did you try or find most effective? Please share your experiences with us!
If you have any questions, personal stories, or concerns, please comment below!