Cochise County Plants: Scarlet (Red) Morning Glory, Ipomoea Coccinea

Yes, Ipomoea coccinea really is a Cochise County, Arizona, plant. Don’t believe the usda.gov (Department of Agriculture) site that claims the scarlet or red morning glory doesn’t exist here. In all fairness, the federal site does cover its backside by simply showing the supposed lack of the species anywhere west of Texas as “absent or unreported”. Good bureaucratic caution, right there.

The thin, purplish climbing vines with the miniscule, bright red-orange flowers are most definitely here, though.

On our acreage near the Mexican border, the blooms first showed up during the summer of 2011, shortly after massive clouds of superheated gas from the equally massive Monument Fire rolled high overhead, hundreds of thousands of morning glory seeds tumbling from the sky to sow themselves across the land. We got many more of the larger blue types, entire acres being carpeted with both vines and blooms that first year. The itsy bitsy scarlet flowers were included in the mix, but only sporadically, a touch of color accent here and there.

How itsy bitsy are these things, you ask?

Good question. For three years after the first Ipomoea coccinea showed up, I couldn’t have explained it very well. Photos were needed to do the job right, and good photos were hard to come by. Nearly all of the scarlet morning glories were mixed deeply in with their larger blue cousins, making them challenging to photograph for two huge reasons:

    1. Getting close enough for a close-up (the only way to get a decent picture) meant pushing into a tangled mass of greenery loaded with chiggers. This year, I managed to make it to mid-August before getting nailed with my first chigger bite of the season, but I seem to be getting more and more sensitive to the attacks of the little skin-dissolving arthropods.

    2. Even when close enough, these morning glories are difficult to photograph well. I’m way too lazy to truly master the full potential of the Canon PowerShot camera that rides at my left hip day in and day out. That means it’s always set on Automatic Focus, and the cotton picking thing invariably chooses to focus on anything but the blossom I want to feature.

Still, persistence does have its rewards. This morning, finally, the camera captured a few photos worth publishing. Here’s one showing my fingers behind the flower to give the little red-orange beauty a sense of scale.

Finally, after three years of trying, I lucked out and got a photo showing the diminutive size of the scarlet morning glory flower.

Finally, after three years of trying, I lucked out and got a photo showing the diminutive size of the scarlet morning glory flower.

One curious feature of the plants thriving here near the Border Fort is their refusal to fully conform to the “expected” morning glory image. That is, unlike their big blue cousins, the flowers don’t all furl up tight during the heat of the afternoon. They do all seem to shut down at night, but quite a few keep their trumpets open to the sun throughout most of the day.

It could be they’re just rebels like the rest of us living here, refusing to conform to the “societal norm” for their species. They’re individualists.

Their vines are thin and purplish. Their leaves are…interesting. Were a weapons master to craft a battle axe with a cutting head shaped like the Ipomoea coccinea leaf, enemies would flee in terror at the very sight of them. At least, if they had any sense, they would.

Red Orange Morning Glories 057 This fierce shape would make an excellent pattern for an awesome, deadly battle axe.

Curiously, not every leaf is shaped to precisely the same model. I carefully traced the leaf in the following photo to be certain it really did belong to one of the scarlet morning glory flowers. It did, as did the one in the above photo.

Not every scarlet morning glory leaf is shaped in precisely the same way.

Not every scarlet morning glory leaf is shaped in precisely the same way.

Numerous online sources describe the scarlet morning glory as butterfly friendly, a great butterfly attractant…but frankly, ours don’t seem all that impressive on that score. If you want a powerful butterfly friend, check out a bit of damp mud in the desert. There you will see oodles of butterflies, mostly yellow and pale orange types with a few shading toward mint green. Now, that’s a butterfly attractant; there will be entire clouds of the winged insects hanging around the mud hole.

We’ve yet to spot even one butterfly saying hello to an Ipomoea coccinea bloom.

Admittedly, some of the proponents of the “butterflies love scarlet morning glories” theory are talking about encouraging the vines to grow in or around a garden or home as a decorative plant, producing “vine mobs” with dozens and dozens of blooms in close proximity to each other. Maybe in that situation the butterflies really would be impressed. We don’t do it that way. Our garden is the desert by Mother Nature, albeit with an occasional boost from a human caused wildfire. No pruning (except to get some out of the way here and there), shaping, twisting, cultivating, etc. What grows here, grows here. It’s on its own. We observe, and that’s it.

The observation is pretty cool, though. Our scarlet morning glories provide the only splashes of that particular color anywhere on our property. They spice up the place, and we’re glad they decided to come live here with us.

One scarlet morning glory flower stands tall while another (above) furls its petals into a tight little spear.  A blue morning glory blossom (white & purple) is also furled for the day.  In the background is a yellow extension cord; don't ask.

One scarlet morning glory flower stands tall while another (above) furls its petals into a tight little spear. A blue morning glory blossom (white & purple) is also furled for the day. In the background is a yellow extension cord; don’t ask.

Another angle.

This is the desert?.

We're glad the scarlet morning glory, Ipomoea coccinea, decided to come live with us.  By mid-August in southern Cochise County, Arizona, this is definitely chigger country--but beautiful nonetheless.

We’re glad the scarlet morning glory, Ipomoea coccinea, decided to come live with us. By mid-August in southern Cochise County, Arizona, this is definitely chigger country–but beautiful nonetheless.