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Winter 2012

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

January 17, 2012

Sweet autumn virginsbower

A potent remedy in dainty clothing


As a stiff winter gust rakes through a frostbitten heap of sweet autumn virginsbower, a plumed seed surrenders its grip to swirl down the alley, where an eddy gathers it with others into a rolling pile of fuzz. If the seed ultimately finds its way onto cool, moist soil, it may germinate in late spring to sprout a sprawling invasive vine, notorious for swarming over forest edges and creek banks.

In 1864, Clematis terniflora was introduced to the United States from East Asia as an ornamental plant. In late summer and autumn, the perennial climber adorns itself with fragrant, snow-white, cross-shaped flowers.

Flower of Clematis terniflora.

Perfume, prettiness and a precious name can mask the fact that C. terniflora synthesizes some potent compounds. Like other members of the buttercup family of plants, sweet autumn virginsbower is considered to be at least mildly toxic unless the plant is dried or cooked.

Traditional Chinese medicine, however, attempts to harness the chemical power of C. terniflora by using dried pieces of the root to treat cataracts and a variety of inflammatory ailments, including arthritis, prostatitis, hepatitis, mastitis, bronchitis and gout.

The Japanese use a name for the vine that may be more appropriate to its formidable nature. Sennin-so is a name inspired by the seed plumes, which are reminiscent of a hermit's beard. Translation: Wizard plant.

SOURCES: YanQiu He, Global Invasive Species Database, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicines, Flora of China, Chemistry of Natural Compounds, Plants for a Future, Japanese Treasure Tales, uncultivated.info

Sweet Autumn Clematis, Clematis terniflora