Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Virgin's Bower

Many of us are so familiar with cultivated plants that we take for granted that they were once wild and untamed.

We never stop and think that their wild cousins are right beneath our noses or climbing above our heads.

One of these plants is Virgin's Bower, or Clematis virginiana. It is indeed a Clematis, and a close inspection yields the similarities.

It is a denizen of moist forests in the eastern United States, its range extending north to Canada and south to Texas and Florida.

Virgin's Bower can be found draped over trees and shrubs along forest edges, stream banks and fence rows, using large plants as its trellis, although it isn't above trailing along the ground.

Its vine could be easily overlooked as we stroll through our eastern forests. Growing from 12-15 feet long, the angled stem is covered in long-stemmed 3-toothed, ovate leaflets.

The vine's new growth is relatively weak and thin, turning woody after about three years. It climbs not with tendrils, but by twisting its leaf stalks around its supports. The new leaf stalks rotate in a circle, completing a revolution every 5 or 6 hours, until they find an object to latch onto.

Although it can occasionally smother its living trellis, it is not parasitic, deriving no sustenance from its "host."

It is when they bloom that they are likely to capture your attention! In late summer the vines are covered in numerous showy, fragrant white flowers an inch across. One might even mistake this little Clematis for some type of exotic wild Jasmine.

The 4 petal-like sepals spread widely and are a shade of pale cream.

The genders of the flowers can get rather confusing.

Sometimes a vine is made up of all male or staminate flowers. Sometimes they are all pistillate, or female. Sometimes they have what are known as perfect flowers, made up of both genders.

Depending on this identity, the flowers will look different, under close observation.

Staminate flowers are the showiest, with their abundant long stamens with white filaments and pale yellow anthers.

Pistillate flowers have a cluster of green carpels in the center, and each carpel has a short, curled style. These are surrounded by a cluster of sterile "pseudo-stamens."

A pistillate flower
Perfect flowers have a cluster of green carpels surrounded by two rows of stamens.

And we thought human reproduction was complicated!

Like our domestic garden variety Clematis, the seeds are just as showy as the blossoms - composed of numerous achenes, each with a long, silky tail.

Minnesota Wildflowers
Clematis are in the buttercup family, or Ranunculaceae, which contains a staggering variety of plants.

The Clematis genus contains over 250 species, mainly restricted to temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of our familiar cultivated varieties originated in China, having been developed in Japanese gardens before making their way to Europe in the 18th century.

There are many native Clematis species to be found in the United States, including several interesting varieties in the Southeast.

Leather Vasevine (C. viorna) is one of them, and can be found growing in wet woods in the mid-South.

Forestry Images
A similar Clematis, known as Leatherflower (C. pitcheri) is quite rare in my state (TN) but fairly common in the central US.

Wildflower Center
There is also a western equivalent to C. virginiana, and that is C. ligusticifolia; also known locally as Virgin's Bower, but more commonly as Pepper Vine.

The Watershed Nursery
The origin of the word Clematis is Greek, describing a vine with "long, thin branches."

Virgin's Bower has numerous common names, including Devil's Darning Needles, Devil's Hair and Old Man's Beard.

Like practically every member of the buttercup family, Clematis are toxic.

However, do you remember the Western Virgin's Bower, and how it was also called Pepper Vine? Its seeds were once used as a pepper substitute by early pioneers and Western explorers. The whole plant has an acrid, peppery taste, however it can cause internal bleeding in large amounts.

All clematis species contain an essential oil that is very irritating to the mucus membranes and can even cause skin irritation.

Despite its mild toxicity, it was valued for medicine by indigenous tribes.

The Cherokee would brew a root tea to aid the kidneys. They would brew a warm infusion with Milkweed to treat a backache. A root infusion was made to cure stomach troubles, and a tea was brewed to help calm the nerves.

Other Clematis species, both on our continent and others, have had some type of medicinal use.

Pepper Vine was used in the external  treatment of skin sores. A root decoction was used to treat colds and sore throats. A poultice of the foliage was used to treat chest pain and rheumatic joints. The stalks and stems were used as a female contraceptive. A poultice of the mashed, moistened seeds was used to treat severe burns.

Some Asian species have been used in the treatment of dysentery, neuralgia, leucorrhoea and a host of other ailments.

When it comes to wildlife, Virgin's Bower in bloom is an oasis of pollinator activity, attracting numerous species of bees, moths and butterflies, and even hummingbirds.

Butterflies swarming over plumes of Virgin's Bower high in the trees is such a serene and ethereal spectacle.

The rambling vines provide excellent cover for wildlife and nesting birds.

It makes a lovely addition to your landscaping, providing an attractive and fragrant showpiece on an arbor, fence row or trellis.

Like domestic Clematis, give it moist feet and sun on its blooms and it will stay happy.

The beauty and purity of Virgin's Bower rivals any expensive cultivar, and is always a welcomed discovery when we happen upon one during a Summer stroll.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's Wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower, Yellow Leafcup

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


USDA Forest Service

Plants for a Future

Wildflower Center

Illinois Wildflowers

Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart

Wildflowers of Tennessee - Jack B. Carman

Cherokee Plants and Their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B. Hamel & Mary U. Chiltoskey


  1. Another great wildflower post! Thanks for linking up at the Weekend Blog Hop at My Flagstaff Home!


  2. We have these in the woods behind our house! Thanks for helping me attach a name and information to one of the many plants we find back there. :)

  3. What a delicate, pretty little flower! Thanks for sharing.

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday. I hope you'll stop back again this week!