Man of the Earth

Leaves are heart-shaped and “fiddle-like.” Photo by Kenneth Boone

Native vine produces beautiful blossoms all summer

Man of the earth, morning glory, big-root morning-glory, Indian potato, wild potato vine, wild sweet potato, wild rhubarb and manroot are all names for the same beautiful flowering vine that twists up the branches and twigs of shrubs and small trees to get its flowers up off the forest floor and into the sunlight.

The vine, a perennial native in southern and eastern North America, is often found in newly disturbed ground, along highways, fencerows, forests bordering fields and prairies, as well as alongside agricultural fields, in thickets and along creeks. Man of the earth prefers moist to slightly dry, sandy soils.

The scientific name for this vine is Impomoea pandurata, which means “resembling a worm” – a reference to the twisting, climbing vine – and “fiddle-like,” which refers to its leaf shape.

It is a twining or trailing vine that is smooth or covered with very fine, soft, short hairs. The vines’ stems are often purple colored and climb dextrally, or with a right-handed twist.

Its leaves are green, roughly heart-shaped or oval and often cupped. They are about as wide as they are long and range up to 3 inches.

The large white blossoms with purple, lavender or ruby throats open in the morning and close later in the day, hence the common name morning glory (a name used for scores of different species). On cloudy days, the flowers sometimes remain open much longer. The short-lived flowers are produced on stalks in clusters of one to five, and each flower can grow up to 3-4 inches wide. Blooms are found from May to September around Lake Martin.

After flowering, the plant produces capsules that contain two to four flat, hairy seeds.

Underground is a huge storage root or tuber, shaped like a tapered sweet potato. Each taproot produces four to eight shoots. The storage root can grow up to 30 inches long and weigh up to 40 pounds. It is found deep in the ground, straight down from where the vine emerges from the earth.

This starchy root is edible and was used by Native Americans as a food source. It is said to taste something like a somewhat bitter sweet potato. The taproot gets more bitter as it gets older, so smaller roots are preferred for the table.

However, fresh roots have been used as a diuretic, a laxative and an expectorant … so if you try to eat one, it’s best to make sure it is well cooked by cutting it into cubes and boiling; then boiling again in fresh water; and then, roasting the cubes.

Also, there are several other morning glories that have a similar look, and some are not edible, so carefully identify the plant before chowing down.

The root has also been used to make a poultice that can be used to treat sore, aching joints.

The seeds of this plant are poisonous if ingested.

Man of the earth attracts a number of insects, including honeybees, native bumble bees and digger bees, as well as butterflies, moths and beetles. Because the foliage is somewhat toxic and bitter tasting, it is usually not eaten by mammals, such as deer or goats.

Gardeners – especially those interested in native species – sometimes plant man of the earth seeds along fencerows to enjoy its white, purple-throated flowers all summer long. Man of the earth seeds can be gathered in the wild and are also available from some rare seed vendors.

Some information for this article came from Eat the Weeds; emergencyoutdoors.com; Climbers, a project of Robyn J. Burnham at the University of Michigan; uswildflowers.com; Wildflowers of Alabama; and Wikipedia.org.