Herb to Know: Virgin's Bower

| June/July 2001

  • Photograph by J.G. Strauch, Jr.

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.



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