Clematis virginiana

Clematis of the Month for October 2023

Described by our current president, Lyndy Broder

With thanks to Mia Broder for the photographs

C. virginiana©Mia Broder

C. virginiana - with female flowers on the left and male flowers on the right

C. virginiana is a welcome addition to the late summer garden for those who have the space. This vigorous herbaceous vine is covered in small flowers which start greenish but quickly turn white to creamy white with four tepals which are slightly fragrant. C. virginiana is one of eighteen clematis species which is dioecious. Upon close examination of individual vines, you can see the difference in the male and female flowers. If you grow only the male vine you should not get any seeds therefore having no concerns of it spreading. The seedheads however are quite attractive. The brown achenes have long silvery silky tails.

C. virginiana seedheads©Mia Broder

C. virginiana seedheads

C. virginiana in my garden©Mia Broder

C. virginiana in my garden

C. virginiana was named by Carl Linnaeus and was first introduce into cultivation in 1726. When I.Cl.S. visited Sweden in 2007, C. virginiana was one of the plants we saw in the Linnaeus Gardens in Uppsala, which were originally designed by Carl Linnaeus to demonstrate his system of plant classification. It has also been reported that Charles Darwin studied C. virginiana. Darwin discovered that, as each new leaf stalk seeks to climb, it revolves completing a full circle every five to six hours until it finds an object to climb. This phenomenon is called thigmotropism. I have not made this observation myself.

Two of the common names are Virgin's Bower and Devil's Darning Needle. Since this species is prolific in the Appalachian Mountains and was used by the Cherokee Indians medicinally, I wondered if the later name was of Cherokee origin. A North Carolina naturalist's research found that many people from Wales settled in the area, and they brought with them the myth that if a child was naughty then the Devil would use the silky tail of the seed to sew the child's mouth together during the night.

C. virginiana naturally occurs from Novia Scotia to Florida, staying on the Eastern side of North America. Growing along streams and edges of woods, it is often found on fences. On my own property, I first saw the seedheads glistening in the evening sun along a fence. I had never noticed the vine before. I moved it to my garden where I now have a plethora of C. virginiana. I try to reduce the number of female plants and cut the seedheads once they become mature. A possible use for extra plants is to use them as stock plants for grafting of other clematis.

This vine can grow to seven meters. In August it is a mass of white flowers covered with numerous pollinators including bees, butterflies, moths, skippers and other unidentified insects. It is a fabulous source of late summer pollen. Hard pruning is recommended as it flowers on current season's growth.

A selection of pollinators on C. virginiana

Atteva aurea and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Atteva aurea and C. virginiana

Calycopis cecrops and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Calycopis cecrops and C. virginiana

Eastern carpenter bee and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Eastern carpenter bee and C. virginiana

Eastern tiger swallowtail and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Eastern tiger swallowtail and C. virginiana

Four-toothed Mason Wasp and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Four-toothed Mason Wasp and C. virginiana

Red-Footed Cannibalfly and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Red-Footed Cannibalfly and C. virginiana

Scolia dubia and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Scolia dubia and C. virginiana

Trichopoda pennipes and C. virginiana©Mia Broder

Trichopoda pennipes and C. virginiana

C. virginiana is often confused with C. terniflora, 'Sweet Autumn' clematis, an invasive exotic vine in N. America. I often come across C. terniflora in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains while looking for native clematis species. C. terniflora will begin blooming in early August with C. virginiana following mid-August. C. terniflora should be hard pruned before the seeds become mature. It is easy to tell the difference in the two species by looking at the leaves. C. virginiana clearly has toothed dark green leaflets and C. terniflora has smooth entire leaves.

C. terniflora (left) and C. virginiana (right)©Mia Broder

C. terniflora (left) and C. virginiana (right)

A spontaneous cross between C. tubulosa × C. virginiana resulted in C. 'Mrs.Robert Brydon'. See Clematis of the Month October 2000 for a description.

My interest is in herbal healing properties of plants. C. virginiana can be toxic for some people being highly irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. Ingestion may cause vomiting, diarrhea and convulsions. However, both the Cherokee Indians and early settlers used C. virginiana. It is still used today in current herbal practice. It can be used in liniments for skin eruptions and itching. A weak leaf tea is used for insomnia, nervous headaches, and nervous twitching. A root tea is used for kidney problems and stomach trouble.

C. virginiana is a large rambunctious vine which will bring numerous pollinators to your fall garden and healing energy for the body and soul.

Lyndy Broder Lyndy Broder

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