06 March 2010

Spotlight On...Blue Clematis

Blue Clematis
Clematis occidentalis
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)

What's in a Name?  
Clematis comes from the Greek root clema, meaning "long, easily bent branches."  Occidentalis is a very common species name meaning "from the west" (as opposed to orientalis, "from the east").  Also known as Western Virgin's Bower.

Quick ID:  
Blue Clematis is a perennial woody vine, with stems that wind around other plants as they climb up searching for light in shady forests.  Leaves are opposite with 3 leaflets.  The solitary, 4-"petaled"* flowers appear nodding on slender stalks May-July.  Fruits are small, hard achenes with long, feathery tails that clump together en masse.
*technically sepals, not petals

Fruits remain on naked branches all winter, resembling fluffy piles of cotton entwined around other trees.


Shady forests, on cliffs and in thickets; moist to dry sites in foothills, montane and subalpine zones; BC/Alberta to Utah/Colorado.

Like many Ranunculaceae members, Clematis contains a toxic sap (ranunculin) that causes skin reactions in some people.  It has been used by trained herbalists to treat nervous disorders and headaches; however, misuse can cause severe illness or death, and ingestion is not advised.
A tea made of the stems and leaves was used by the Okanagan-Colville Indians to prevent gray hair.  
The fluffy seed tails make a soft, effective insulation for boots and mittens, and are excellent tinder for fire-starting.

Wild gardening:  
Loads of showy flowers and a unique vining characteristic make this an excellent ornamental that's easily grown from seed or by layering a section of the vine.  True to its climbing nature, it prefers a sunny location where the base of the plant stays shaded.  Clematis is known to attract backyard birds, particularly hummingbirds.

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

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