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This fine-textured perennial vine is one of the few vines that will flower in shade, and its billows of delicate, white flowers are abuzz all day long with pollinators in summer and early fall. It prefers moist, rich soils, but thrives in a variety of soil types, including drier soils in the shade, and it can grow 20 feet in a year. Lacking tendrils, it uses leaf stalks to twine around support structures or nearby trees and shrubs, even sprawling across the ground if no support is available. The hardy vine grows vigorously in sun or shade and spreads by seeds, or achenes, and root suckers. A single vine may produce all male, all female, or all perfect  flowers (those having both male and female structures). The female flowers develop into brown achenes sprouting spidery filaments (another common name is old man’s beard), and many gardeners enjoy these unique, feathery seedheads as much as they do the masses of flowers.  

 

Also known as devil’s darning needles and woodbine, this clematis is native to much of the eastern two-thirds of the US and is related to the exotic clematises that are common in garden nurseries. Its delicate, white flowers and sheltering form probably earned it the common name virgin’s bower. The flowers look very similar to those of sweet autumn clematis, an invasive non-native. These two species can be easily distinguished by their foliage--sweet autumn clematis has smooth, oval-shaped leaves, while virgin’s bower has jagged edges and a shape somewhat akin to a maple leaf. The attractive foliage provides excellent cover and nesting habitat for songbirds, and mammals tend to leave it alone. The vine can be trimmed to a couple of feet from the ground in late winter to encourage a shorter, bushier form the next year.

 

Clematis climbs well on narrow supports such as twigs or wire. One unusual idea for a vertical screen is to string wires from the base of trees to their lower branches and let the vine clamber up. The result is a column of foliage with tiny white flowers, interesting seedheads, and habitat for insects and birds.

 

Native habitats include moist woods, fencerows, banks of rivers, slopes of drainage ditches, low ground along railroads, and moist meadows. While not appropriate for formal gardens, it’s ideal for shady woodlands and areas where it can scramble along the ground, over shrubs, and along fences. It can also be grown on trellises, arbors, or posts. To control spread, site it where it can be mowed around.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows 6-20’ tall and 3-6’ wide.

 

Thrives in full sun to full shade.

 

Prefers moist to medium-moist, rich soils, but tolerates drier soils if sited in shadier conditions.

 

One-inch flowers bloom in flattish clusters of about 30 from July to September and have elliptical, petal-like sepals. Female flowers have many greenish pistils in the center, each with a curled style. Male flowers have numerous stamens in the center with creamy tips. The fruits are dry, brown achenes with feathery tufts for wind dispersal.

 

Leaves are compound and in groups of 3.  Leaflets are up to 4” long and 3” wide, shallowly lobed in 2 or 3 parts, with coarsely toothed edges and sharply pointed tips. Stems are round to squarish, often green or dull red until they mature and become brown and woody.

 

Wildlife Value:  

Virgin's bower is a host plant to 9 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including white-marked tussock moth (pictured here, preceded by its caterpillar), clematis clearwing moth (adult pictured here), and 2 specialist moths. The nectar attracts honey bees, halictid and other native bees, hummingbirds, several species of butterflies, wasps, and various flies. Toxic foliage is avoided by mammals. Seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals in late fall and winter.

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans used an extract of the stems as a hallucinogen to induce strange dreams. Cherokees used it to treat backaches, stomach and kidney issues, venereal disease, and nervous conditions.

 

Caution: All parts of the plant are poisonous if consumed and can cause skin irritation in those who are sensitive.

Clematis, Virgin’s Bower, Clematis virginiana

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