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Balloon vine

by Linda Inoki
Whither does he make his way?
Only where the autumn winds blow
The little pilgrim!

By Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), translated by Lewis Mackenzie in “Autumn Wind Haiku” (Kodansha International)

In Japanese culture, the autumn wind speaks of mortality, but in the natural world it is a life-giving force, helping to scatter millions of seeds. Plants have many remarkable ways of distributing their seeds, from the flying wings of the maple trees, to the parachutes of dandelions, to the balloons of the vine pictured above. The pods of Cardiospermum halicacabum are about 2.5 cm across, and appear in late summer as bright-green puffs of air. Inside each pod are three pealike seeds. As the seeds ripen, the soft green balloons turn brown and papery until they are light enough to fly away on the wind or float on water. Unfortunately, the plant’s strategy is too successful for mankind. Even in its native land, the southern United States, it is often classified as a noxious, invasive weed, while it is actually illegal to grow it in South Africa — and if someone in New Zealand finds a balloon vine, they are instructed to “report it immediately” to the authorities, who will rush to destroy it. But balloon vines are so tough that you can even find them flourishing in the street gardens of Tokyo! Here, the plant is grown for its attractive foliage and pods, which resemble the traditional paper-toy balloons called fusen. Although the white flowers are insignificant, they resemble tiny orchids. Other English names for this plant are “heartseed” and “love in a puff,” because the dark seeds carry a pretty, heart-shaped mark where they were attached to the pod.