The Wild Gardener

As fall approaches, the Virgin’s bower or Clematis virginiana, is becoming visible in our fields and gardens. It has a number of popular names including woodbine, leather flower (although this usually refers to Clematis viorna), devil’s darning needle, traveler’s joy, and old-man’s beard (this last referring to the plumed seedpods).

The most popular common name of Virgin’s bower really harkens back to the European clematis, Clematis vitalba, which looks a great deal like its American cousin when going to seed. When Europeans saw our native clematis they gave it the same name. As to why it acquired that common name, it’s evident when you see the vine rambling through a thicket in the fall, the slanting rays of the sun hitting the feather plumes on the seeds which light up like a halo. Traveler’s joy is another English common name and salutes the walking tourist because from early leaf, to bursting blossoms, to the feathery seedpods, this plant, more than most, shows the passing of the seasons.

The ancient Romans believed that clematis rambling up the wall of their houses would protect that home from thunderstorms while the Germans believed the plant would attract lightning. But there’s another, less attractive legend associated with the European plant. In France it’s called Herbe au Gueux, because French beggars were said to crush the leaves into a fine dust which they then applied to their skin to raise ulcers, meant to generate compassion in the public. Hence today, in the language of flowers, clematis is a symbol of artifice.

Another interesting fact about this particular plant is revealed by a little-known common name of shepherd’s delight — poor folks would smoke cigar lengths of the dry stems which draw well and don’t burst into flame.

The name Clematis is from the Greek word klema or vine-twig although the plants are not really vines but clambering sub-shrubs. They are all members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). A word should be said about the pronunciation of clematis as it’s often mispronounced in America. In England ‘Cle’ has a short ‘e’ and the syllable is pronounced ‘kle’ as in the word cleric. In ‘ma’ the ‘a’ is short as in the word apart, while in the ’tis’ the ‘i’ is short and rhymes with the word hiss.

The plants love to grow at the edges of thickets or along stream-banks where they can ramble through the branches of other plants, reaching up to the light but still keeping their roots shaded and cool. The one-inch flowers are found in clusters arising from the leaf axils.

Our native vine is easily confused with the sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora or Clematis paniculata or as it’s now called Clematis maximowicziana), an Asian vine that has escaped from gardens. The two vines are easily distinguished by examining their leaves: On the Virgin’s bower, almost all the leaves have jagged teeth while on the sweet autumn clematis, the leaves are rounded with almost all of them un-toothed.

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