Along country roads in autumn in the eastern United States, large masses of soft grayish fluff blanketing mounds of shrubbery are a common, if puzzling, sight. What kind of plant would produce them? Return in summer, and you’ll find that the bushes are now covered with small, creamy-white flowers. A closer look will show that the flowers are on vines that are climbing through and over the supporting shrubs and are not part of the shrubs themselves. The vines are the poetically named virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), country cousins of the popular hybrid clematises whose huge, vivid-colored flowers cover arbors and trellises everywhere.
The genus Clematis numbers more than 200 species of plants that may be evergreen or deciduous and vining, upright woody, or semiwoody. They’re native to temperate regions throughout the world as well as the mountains of tropical Africa. The generic name, Clematis, comes from the Greek clema, “tendril,” and was applied by the first-century Greek naturalist Dioscorides to a number of different climbing plants. C. virginiana is a deciduous vine native to eastern and central Canada and the United States as far west as the Rocky Mountains; it occurs in elevations up to 1,350 feet. Virginiana is Latin for “of the state of Virginia.” The plant’s western counterpart, C. ligusticifolia, also known as virgin’s bower, is found from southern British Columbia to northern Mexico, mainly at elevations of 1,650 to 8,500 feet. Ligusticifolia is Latin for “having leaves like those of lovage,” a description that would seem to apply as well to C. virginiana.
The leaves of C. virginiana are opposite, pinnately divided into three coarsely toothed, somewhat oval leaflets. The entire leaf measures about 4 inches long by 3 inches wide. The plant climbs by wrapping its leaf stalks around any handy support. And it’s a vigorous grower: the ribbed, slightly hairy stems may grow 20 feet or longer. When not in bloom, virgin’s bower can be confused with poison ivy, another vigorous vine with leaves divided into three sometimes coarsely toothed leaflets (“Leaflets three, let it be”). The opposite leaves and twining leaf stalks, however, distinguish virgin’s bower from the alternate leaves and aerial roots of poison ivy.
The plant bears fragrant, creamy flowers 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches across in clusters on long stalks in the leaf axils. They bloom from July to September. Each flower has four elliptical, petal-like sepals. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. A few perfect flowers (those having both male and female reproductive structures) are found among the female flowers. Self-pollination occurs in some of the perfect flowers; bees and flies pollinate the others and all of the female flowers.
The fruit clusters developing from female and perfect flowers measure nearly 2 1/2 inches across. Each one-seeded fruit retains a 2-inch-long gray or silvery feathery style; the common names devil’s darning needle and old man’s beard refer to these masses of styles. When they mature, the wind carries them away.
Virgin's Bower Uses
The Cherokee used infusions of the root of virgin’s bower to treat kidney, stomach, and nervous ailments. Combined with milkweed, virgin’s bower was a remedy for backache. It is believed to have been an ingredient of the ceremonial “black drink” that the people took to purify themselves at the time of the first corn harvest in July or August.
The Iroquois applied a root powder or infusion to the lesions caused by venereal disease and drank a decoction of the stems to induce strange dreams and to relieve “burning kidneys.”
Herbalists at one time used a liniment of virgin’s bower to relieve skin eruptions and itching as well as prescribing a weak leaf infusion to treat insomnia, uterine diseases, and nervous headaches and twitching. They also recommended it as a tonic to stimulate urination and sweating. Very dilute preparations of some clematis species are used as homeopathic remedies.
The active component in virgin’s bower has been identified as the lactone protoanemonin, a compound found throughout the plant and also present in high quantities in other buttercup family members including baneberries, pasqueflowers, and buttercups. Protoanemonin has been found to inhibit the growth of bacteria, viruses, fungi, yeasts, and tumors, and to lower fevers and expel intestinal parasites. Unfortunately, this powerful drug is also highly toxic to humans. It is irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. Merely touching the leaves of virgin’s bower can raise blisters in sensitive individuals, so it’s a good idea to wear gloves when handling the plant. Ingestion can cause bloody vomiting, severe diarrhea, fainting, and convulsions. It goes without saying that there are safer alternatives.
Growing Virgin's Bower
Virgin’s bower is a plant for wild areas. The rampant growth that can mask an ugly chain-link fence in short order can smother a small herb garden in even shorter order. It prefers moist soil, cool roots, and will grow in full sun or part shade—although it will flower more heavily in full sun. To keep the roots cool, mulch around the base of the plant with stones or place it so that other plants will shade its base. An herbal ground cover such as sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) or bugleweed (Ajuga spp.) will flower in early summer when virgin’s bower is still just foliage. Wear gloves when handling the plant to avoid the risk of a skin reaction, and treat it gently as the brittle young stems are easily broken. Provide support for the vines to climb on or let them scramble through and over neighboring plants and rocks. The plant never needs dividing. It blooms on new wood, so you won’t be reducing flowering by cutting out a few stems all the way to the ground in early spring to keep the plant within bounds.
For best germination, place seeds in a small plastic bag filled with moist vermiculite and refrigerate them for 90 days. Transplant them to flats or pots, sowing them 1/16 inch deep, and keep them at room temperature until they germinate. Grow the seedlings further in individual small pots. They may bloom the following season or may wait until their third season of growth.
You may take stem cuttings from green wood in spring and dip in rooting hormone to encourage rooting. Rooted cuttings are likely to bloom the following season.
• Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599; (541) 846-7269; www.forestfarm.com. Catalog $5. Plants of Clematis ligusticifolia.
• Ion Exchange, 1878 Old Mission Dr., Harpers Ferry, IA 52146-7231; (800) 291-2143; www.ionxchange.com. Catalog free. Seeds, plants of C. virginiana.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0; (905) 640-6677; www.richters.com. Catalog free. Seeds of C. virginiana.
• Sheffield’s Seed Company, Inc., 273 Auburn Rd., Rt. 34, Locke, NY 13092; (315) 497-1058; www.sheffields.com. Catalog free. Seeds of C. ligusticifolia, C. virginiana.