Life is full of contradictions. So are plants.
Vinca, that evergreen vining groundcover that is currently blooming with blue-purple flowers, is a case in point.
This plant has been described as “moderately” invasive, is recommended as a sexual stimulant and also is known to be a portent of death; it is offered up as a healer and yet is known to kill. One must weave through the tangle of incongruities to discern the truth of this twining creeper.
Also known as periwinkle, myrtle, hundred eyes, and joy of the ground, vinca came from afar. Native to Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia, it has gotten a foothold in yards throughout this country. It is a common ornamental that covers lots of ground. Its slender trailing stems quickly provide both cover and erosion control.
Vinca is a backyard blossom with inconsistencies.
It is good for your health! There are more than 80 alkaloid compounds extracted from this plant genus, a few of which are used as chemotherapy to treat lymphomas, leukemia, and other childhood cancers. Use this plant to reduce blood pressure and as a diabetes remedy, as it also can lower blood sugar. Seventeenth-century herbalist John Pechey observed that vinca is “used in fluxes of the belly, for dysenteries, the piles, bleeding at nose, and for wounds with fluxion.”
On the other hand, vinca is poisonous if ingested. Go figure!
Or consider the contention that vinca is an elixir of love. Physician and botanist Nicholas Culpeper insisted that “Venus owns this herb, and saith that the leaves eaten by man and his wife together, cause love between them.”
But, you could love it till — or to — death. During Roman times, vinca was worn as a wreath by humans slated to be sacrificed. In the Middle Ages, this trend continued in a similar form: Criminals to be hanged used it as a garland around their neck for their last leap. The word, vinca, is a fitting name, derived from a Latin root meaning “to bind.” In Italy, the ancient association of vinca with death persevered through the custom of weaving a vinca garland for dead infants.
I guess it is no surprise, then, that we have a love/hate relationship with vinca. Its contradictory nature makes its good and bad associations (appropriately for a vine) difficult to disentangle. But I’ll give the final word to one of those who focused on the good in it: English illustrator Cicely Mary Barker, who professed in poetry her affection for the stimulating downer and deadly lifesaver known to her as periwinkle blue:
In shady shrubby places,
Right early in the year,
I lift my flowers’ faces —
O come & find them here!
My stems are thin & straying,
With leaves of glossy sheen,
The bare brown earth arraying,
For they are ever-green.
No great renown have I. Yet who
does not love Perwinkles blue?
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.