Along the rail trail and roadsides I frequently see these clouds of fluffy seedheads suspended in the branches of trees and shrubs like milkweed down blown there by the wind. Closer approach reveals the soft puffs are attached to a vine that’s clambered its way up the undergrowth for a clearer view. The vine is Virgin’s Bower aka Wild Clematis, Clematis virginiana, and is from the same genus as the showy plants that climb the trellis in the backyard garden. Unlike the cultivated varieties, however, Wild Clematis is at its best in winter, after the leaves drop and reveal the delicate seedheads. Surprisingly, even though the white, fragrant flowers are neither few nor small, the vine often gets overlooked in the symphony of colour that is summer. I can’t consciously remember ever noticing one in bloom. (Neither could my mom, who blogged about them last year.)
It’s perhaps even more beautiful in winter, when it has the stage more or less to itself. The seedheads are designed to be functional, not attractive, but they do both well. The long, feather-like plumes can catch the wind and be carried some distance from the parent vine.
They lack tendrils and so grow like beans, rather than peas, weaving through and around their supports. Though they’re typically fond of moist or damp soils near areas with water, they’re pretty tolerant of a wide range of conditions, and will happily grow in a garden. They make a great addition to a native wildlife garden, providing food and cover for birds and other critters. The flowers are popular with native pollinators. Goldfinches may even use the downy seedheads in their nests in areas where they nest into the fall (goldfinches are a late-nesting species, only just getting started when most other birds already have fledglings out of the nest).
Many places sell Wild Clematis seeds or plants, but it’s probably just as easy to go out and collect your own seeds if you know where some grows in your area (if not, send me an SASE and I’ll mail you some!). The vines are perennial and can eventually reach 10 to 20 feet tall in good conditions. They’re apparently easy to grow from seed, though one site notes that they’re slow to germinate. I’ve collected a few and think I’ll try sprouting them myself this year.