Clematis[photo: courtesy Macphail Woods]

Our native clematis

The Nature of PEI | Gary Schneider

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Prince Edward Island has a wonderful mix of native plants. One of my favourites is our native clematis, which will start flowering in late June and early July. Most of us are familiar with the domesticated, non-native clematis commonly sold in garden centres. They tend to be very colourful with large, showy flowers. They come in a multitude of colours, everything from pink and purple to white and yellow. Great plants, no question.

Yet few of us have had the pleasure of meeting our native clematis (Clematis virginiana). This vine goes by the common name of Virgin’s bower. I was introduced to it many years ago on a trip up west to the O’Leary area. The watershed coordinator for that area was Dave Biggar, who though he has since passed away, remains a legend in the field of watershed enhancement. Dave showed me some clematis running through a regenerating forest and allowed me to take some cuttings.

There are hundreds of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns native to this province, but very few vines. I was intrigued to learn more about these plants and to understand how they could be used in our restoration work. Then I discovered how beautiful they are, and they’ve been a favourite ever since.

Instead of being large and colourful, the Virgin’s bower flowers are much more subtle. As with many things, you need to look a bit closer to appreciate their beauty. The vine, which grows up to six metres (20 feet), produces clusters of pure white flowers that are about two centimetres (3/4 inch) across. The contrast of the bright white flowers against the deep green foliage makes this plant a visual standout.

The flowers are only one part of this vine’s attraction. The flowers turn into a very interesting cluster of feathery seeds in the autumn, while at the same time, the foliage turns purple, fitting in very well with other colourful species such as white ash.

Virgin’s bower is a plant of open woodlands, or the edges of a forest. It helps diversify the forest strata, which is always important if you are trying to create good wildlife habitat. There are so many forests that lack diversity both in species and in the layers of plants. And it means that so many of our native faunal species have nowhere to take cover. Native clematis helps solves these problems and is beautiful to boot.

At Macphail Woods, we use native clematis when we want to add diversity to the restoration patch cuts we make in stands of old field white spruce. In landscaping, it can be used whenever you need a plant to climb an arbour or a pole. On one of our native plant landscaping sites this year, we will be using it to soften the look of some bird and bat boxes we are installing.

Clematis is a very easy plant to grow if you put it in the right place that has a bit of shade and good, rich soil. It also needs something to climb on to be in its full glory, though it will sprawl across a garden bed if given the opportunity.

Like most vines, clematis grows well from cuttings. These can be made during the winter (hardwood cuttings) or the summer (softwood cuttings).Despite our success with cuttings, we now grow all our clematis from seed. It is easy to collect and germinates quite readily, producing hundreds of plants with little fuss.

All in all, another native plant worth getting to know.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.