Ipomoea littoralis is one of around 1,650 species within the Convolvulaceae family of flowering plants, which in turn comprises some 60 genera. The Ipomoea genus is the largest group, amounting to around 500 species.
Around 1,000 species within the Convolvulaceae family, including most Ipomoea, are more commonly known as bindweed or ‘morning glory’. The latter name means ‘love in vain’, according to Victorian floriography.
The taxonomy of Convolvulaceae has been through many revisions over the years. The above watercolour, from the artist Sydney Parkinson, was originally given a different genus – that of Convolvulus, which accounts for some 200 species. The painting is labelled Convolvulus laevigatus and is based on a drawing Parkinson did in Tahiti in 1769.
There are various uses for a number of types of morning glory – Ipomoea batatas, for example, is otherwise known as sweet potato, and Ipomoea aquatica, or water convolvulus, is a popular green vegetable in Asian cuisine.
The seeds of other species contain psychoactive compounds and were used by the Aztecs in shamanistic rituals. The roots of others feature as an ingredient in mojo bags in African-American folk magic.
In Tahiti, Parkinson noted how the locals used the plants to make fishing nets, writing in one of his accounts of the island:
“The inhabitants are very expert swimmers, and will remain in the water a long time, even with their hands full. They keep their water on shore in large bam-boos, and in them they also carry up salt-water into the country. The boys drag for fish with a sort of net made of convolvulus leaves; and sometimes catch them with hooks made of mother of pearl oysters, large pinna marina, and other shells; and the shapes of them are very singular.”