Archived Mountain Voices

Virgin’s bower is a favorite mountain wildflower

It’s late July and before long summer will be slip-sliding toward autumn. The gap between now and then is often overlooked in regard to wildflowers. The first flaming cardinal flowers appear along the creeks and purple Joe Pye weeds and ironweeds throw up their scraggly heads. The entire countryside will be blanketed in a seemingly endless array of thistle, flowering spurge, evening primrose, mullein, heal-all, mints, goldenrods, asters, and so on. 

One of my favorites is virgin’s bower or traveler’s joy (Clematis virginiana). One finds this vine trailing over fences or shrubs in moist areas. Lacking tendrils, it supports itself by means of twisted stems (petioles) that wrap around other plants.

Later virgin’s bower will be profusely covered with bunches of snowy-white, highly-fragrant flowers, each displaying four petals and a central cluster of yellow stamens. Individual plants produce either male (staminate) flowers or female (pistillate) flowers that display sterile stamens.

By late September, those female flowers that have been pollinated are transformed into very curious looking and attractive fruiting structures. These have been described in various ways. One somewhat poetic writer found them to be “fluffy, filmy things, ghosts of the dead flowers of summer.” Another somewhat more prosaic writer described them as “densely-clustered fruits that acquire long, gracefully-curving and feathery tails with a silvery sheen.”                 

Each of these “feathery tails” is attached to a tiny, reddish-brown seed. When ripe, they are borne aloft on autumn winds and thereby widely distributed, as are milkweed and dandelion seeds in a similar fashion.

Virgin’s bower has been frequently transplanted by mountain women to a place where it could trail over privet, boxwood, or other sorts of hedges. The vine is also attractive when trained onto fences or garden and porch trellises. It is easily grown in full sun to partial shade from seed, doing best in rich, moist soil.            

 (George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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