Clematis: a worthy plant with around 300 species worldwide and thousands of cultivars and selections. There are perhaps too many for a mere mortal nurseryman to contemplate, certainly too many to stock. As Michel Dirr says in his “Manual of Woody Plants,””The potential for hybridization transcends sanity … .”

Many of these clematis species can be difficult: cool the roots, sun for the foliage, flowers too big for scrawny vines, too much water, too little water. Culturally, they can be tricky.

Clematis virginiana

  • COMMON NAME: Virgin’s bower
  • HARDINESS: Zones 3 to 8
  • MATURE HEIGHT: 20 feet
  • MATURE WIDTH: 20+ feet
  • MATURE SPREAD: 30 feet
  • LANDSCAPE USE: Anywhere an adaptable vine is needed
  • ORNAMENTAL CHARACTERISTICS: Medium-green leaves with interesting venation; striking, .5 to 2-inch white flowers held above the foliage, followed by lovely threadlike seed tendrils lasting well into fall

But did you know there’s a native clematis that grows like a weed? It’s a vigorous vine, shade and sun tolerant, not fussy about where its roots are, and regularly produces beautiful, white flowers followed by fluffy white seed-dispersing threads or styles that look like curved needles. Hence one of its several common names is devil’s darning needles. Other names are virgin’s bower, old man’s beard and, confusingly, woodbine.

On a recent quest for brook trout in a stream bed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I found myself tangled in something. After several encounters with it wrapping around my wader boots, trying to cast me into the rock-filled Little Carp River, I finally looked more closely and discovered the culprit was C. virginiana. The vine was rampant, tumbling over and around thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) goldenrod (Solidago sp.) and sedges (Carex sp.). C. virginiana is widely distributed. You can find your boots tangled in the vine throughout the eastern U.S. and even into Canada.

Interestingly, C. virginiana does not have tendrils or stick-tights. It climbs via twining: pushing its new growth through and around something higher or alongside. So, while it can climb a fence or trellis, it can’t mount a stone wall or brick house. As with most vines, the C. virginiana plant is difficult to assign a size. Individual runners can exceed 10 feet and if allowed to grow unpruned, can expand to who-knows-how wide. Native virgin’s bower is known to be an aggressive spreader, but can be kept in check and is not considered to be especially invasive, like its relative Clematis terniflora (sweet autumn clematis). It’s best to do some judicious pruning in the late fall or in early spring.

It blooms on the current year’s growth, so don’t fear losing blossoms. Some recommend cutting it back to within 8 to 12 inches of the ground. Whatever you do, it’s doubtful you can hurt the plant. While propagation from seed is possible, the plant roots from its runners with ease. Runners of my potted C. virginiana always find a way to root, even through my ground-cloth. It will take a new plant propagated this way only one season to establish itself in a new location if moved in the spring. I haven’t bought C. virginiana liners in a long time! And long-established plants can be moved with some success, too.

Depending on latitude, full flowering occurs sometime in July, August and September. The inch-wide, four petal-like sepals are organized in clusters and held out from the foliage on branched stalks, which originate at the leaf axils. This characteristic lifts the flowers above the leaves and highlights them. Seeds (achene) develop in the early fall, are small and flat, 1/8th of an inch with a persistent tendril or style that can be up to 2.5 inches long. These tendrils are what make the late season post-bloom so lovely: a plume of off-white, gradually browning as fall progresses. They are also what help the seed disperse in September and October. Throughout the season, from leaf development to pre-, then post-bloom, C. virginiana presents as a delicate, interesting vine. Give it a try.